Raphael and Giulio Romano, Vision of Constantine, Stanza del Costantino, 1518-20

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Raphael and Giulio Romano, Vision of Constantine, Stanza del Costantino, 1518-20
Robert Baldwin

Associate Professor of Art History

Connecticut College

New London, CT 06320

(This essay was written in the late 1990s and has been revised periodically.)

Constantine and Papal Culture

In the Sala del Costantino, Raphael and his chief assistant, Giulio Romano, frescoed four huge paintings of the life of Constantine and an allegory of Christian triumph on the ceiling. All of these events were well described by Constantine’s court historian, Eusebius, in his Life of Constantine. That text was well known to Renaissance humanists and papal officials in numerous printed editions and was the primary source for the growth of Constantinian imagery in papal culture.

As the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity (albeit only at the very end of his life), and the pagan ruler who made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman empire, Constantine emerged as a major hero in Renaissance and Baroque papal culture. Constantinian Christianity allowed the Renaissance church to construct a mythical historical past when the early church was supposedly strong and pure under the vigorous military and political leadership of a single, all-powerful ruler whose victories were secured by divine intervention. A Constantinian past also allowed church officials to revive Roman antiquity without violating Christian values, to fuse classical and Christian much like Constantine when he remade Christianity from an underground religion to an official state religion with lavish architectural patronage. (Constantine and his family built many of the earliest Christian churches in Rome, Jerusalem, and Constantinople.)
As early as 1481, Perugino flattered his papal patron, Sixtus IV by using two images of the Arch of Constantine to flank the Christian church in the background of his fresco, Christ Delivering the Keys to Peter, painted in the Sistine Chapel. Pope Leo X dramatically expanded the papal theme of Constantine by having a giant room in the Vatican frescoed with major scenes from the life of Constantine. This room is three times larger than the earlier rooms frescoed by Raphael and required the substantial participation of his assistant, Giulio Romano, who did most of the painting following the composition designs of Raphael.
Grounded in papal values, the subjects chosen from Constantine’s long life for the fresco cycle underscored divine intervention and divine providence, the supremacy of a single ruler (Constantine over Maxentius), the theme of military victory, and the higher power of the church over secular authority (seen in the fresco depicting Constantine giving imperial authority to an enthroned Pope, shown in class, not required). To make papal values and church history explicit in the fresco cycle, Raphael placed huge portraits of enthroned popes under canopies of honor between each scene from the life of Constantine. Flanked by Christian virtues such as Temperance and Justice, these popes frame the early Christian epoch of Constantine and assert Roman Catholic papal power as a continuation of the imperial authority wielded by the first Christian emperor. Since the scenes from the life of Constantine appear as illusionistic tapestries decorating this room in the Vatican, the images of the popes stand out as living beings, linked to a glorious pagan past yet detached from it in a living Christian present. The face of Raphael’s patron, Leo X, appears on the pope to the right of the Vision of Constantine and he turns toward that scene, raising his arm (like Constantine) as if sharing in the emperor’s heavenly sight.
Roman Imperial Triumph as Renaissance Roman Catholic Triumph

On the even of a battle with the rival pagan emperor, Maxentius, Constantine saw the heavens open up with the sign of the cross and the words, “Conquer in this sign”. Ordering the cross to be mounted on the shields and standards of his troops (seen on standards at the far right and under the heavenly light), Constantine defeated Maxentius the next day at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, fought on the Tiber River just outside Rome.

If Raphael cleverly used classical architecture in his fresco, Fire in the Borgo, he went further in the Vision of Constantine. In the right rear, we see a number of famous monuments of ancient Rome including the pyramid, an Egyptian obelisk, and Hadrian’s Tomb (long since turned into a papal residence, Castel St. Angelo). In part, Raphael was eager to display his knowledge of classical antiquities, especially as Pope Leo X had appointed him Superintendent of Classical Antiquities in Rome. The same display of archaeological knowledge and historical accuracy informed the carefully researched armor and battle standards in this fresco. Raphael even drew on Roman sculptures depicting the emperor addressing his troops and inscribed the key Latin term for this address on the base on which Constantine stands (Adlocutio).
To underscore Christian values, Raphael painted divine light slicing down through a pagan temple, annihilating a pagan idol while making its cruciform posture double as a sign of impending Christian triumph. If the grand pagan buildings testify to the Roman glory overwhelmed by a superior Christian power, they also pointing forward in time to Constantine’s grand patronage of Christian architecture, and to the later patronage of Pope Leo X.

Raphael and Giulio Romano, Constantine Defeats Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Stanza del Costantino, 1518-20

The decisive battle follows, with the crowned Maxentius and his defeated troops tumbling onto the Tiber River. The crowded composition draw closely on Roman relief sculptures of battles which had inspired Italian artists since the late fifteenth century when Pollaiuolo, Bertoldo, and the young Michelangelo began depicting heroic classical battles. (Raphael even paid homage to a nude warrior seen from the back in Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, a figure made famous through reproductive engravings.) Going beyond these earlier battle scenes, Raphael adhered more closely to the tangled, densely interwoven bodies found in ancient Roman battle scenes.

The only person who emerges clearly from this struggling mass is that of Constantine, directly below three armed angels who point out the defeated Maxentius and leading the charge with three standards surmounted by the cross behind him. High on a white stallion, Constantine recalls the whole tradition of Roman imperial equestrian sculpture and the famous status of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, thought to be Constantine during the middle ages. Here again, Raphael’s composition recalls Roman reliefs depicting equestrian emperors in battle, most notably, the relief of Titus Defeating the Dacians which Constantine himself had transferred from the Arch of Titus to the Arch of Constantine to add historical resonance to his own victories. Dressed in resplendent gold armor, Constantine stands out coloristically as well and picks up the rising sun behind him. While solar rhetoric was commonly used by Roman writers to celebrate emperors and was already well known in the papal court a few years earlier as seen in Raphael’s Parnassus made for Julius II, the sunrise behind Constantine likely draws on the extensive solar imagery applied to Constantine in Eusebius’s Life of Constantine and other writings.

Later Mannerist Artist, Triumph of Christianity over Paganism, ceiling, Stanza del Costantino, 1518-20

The ceiling fresco offers a pure allegory of the triumph of Christianity over paganism elaborated historically in the scenes of the life of Constantine below. Here a crucifix is raised up before a pagan idol which has crashed down and splintered. The miraculous event is set in a lavish, pagan temple with what may be a glimpse of the Pantheon in the far distance, behind the crucifix. The architecture also recalls the sumptuous marble of the Vatican Palace used in this very room and works to highlight continuities between imperial and papal authority. Despite the explicit theme of Christian images triumphing over pagan idols, the extensive classical references in Raphael’s Christian frescoes and, more generally, in Italian Renaissance art after 1475, allow us a more critical understanding of the cultural dynamic between Christianity and paganism. Contrary to the historical message of this fresco cycle, the classicizing artistic means used to express that message suggest the revival of Roman pagan imagery and culture in Renaissance church culture. While it would be going too far to say that papal culture encouraged a triumph of paganism over Christianity between 1450 and 1550, church officials did lead the way in reviving ancient Roman imperial imagery to give new authority to the Vatican after a period of weakness in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

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