Arch of Constantine

Canaletto ‘View of the Arch of Constantine and Colosseum’ 1742 -1745

Canaletto 'View of the Arch of Constantine and Colosseum'
The Getty Museum

View of the Arch of Constantine and Colosseum      Colosseum
 Via dei Fori Imperiali aerial picture     G.B. Falda map The surrounding 1676

View Arch Constantine and Colosseum
photo: Joanna Gawlica-Giędłek Pixabay

It helps to have small binoculars with you. Only then can you really make out the reliefs. Bluffton University has three pages with excellent images of the arch of Constantine. Click here for Wikipedia.

Joseph Vernet ‘The Molle’ 18th century

At the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (Molle), emperor Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius (click here for Wikipedia). As a token of his gratitude, Constantine commissioned a triumphal arch in 315. One year after their victory over Maxentius, the Christians received their freedom to religion with the 313 Milan Edict. The Christians owed this in part to a vision by the emperor before he defeated his opponent Maxentius. In a dream, he saw a cross at heaven with the maxim:  ‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’, in this sign shallt thou conquer. In reality, archeological research revealed the arch to have been built 200 years earlier, in the days of Hadrianus.

As explained, triumphal arches were a great way for the emperor to spread his propaganda. This is precisely what Constantine does, to demonstrate that he bestows gifts to the people. The text on the arch also reveals why Constantine had this triumphal arch built.

Arch Constantine Inscription

Arch of Constantine Inscription

To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest
pious, and blessed Augustus: because he,
inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind
has delivered the state from the tyrant
and all of his followers
at the same time
with his army and just force of arms,
the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs.
The front and back have the same inscription.
Source: Wikipedia (Dutch) and Wikipedia English

The arch of Constantine        The Arch of Constantine and the surrounding    
Reliefs of several  emperors

Arch of Constantine  
photos: Carole Raddato, Kirk K, surrounding: Sonse and reliefs: Marsyas

The remarkable thing is that for the first time, a style is sculpted that announce the Christian Middle-Ages. The themes are however anything but Christian. For instance, it shows reliefs of sacrifices to the heathen gods like Diana and Hercules. Constantine only baptised himself as a Christian twenty-two years after building this arch.

Arch Constantine: relief Constantine hands over gifts   

Constantine hands over gifts at the forum Caesar    N. 24

Most reliefs on the arch of Constantine were taken from other imperial triumphal arches, including those of Hadrianus, Marcus Aurelius and Trajanus. The sculptors were tasked with removing the heads of these emperors and replacing them with the head of Constantine (n. 8 and 11). We’ll notice a world of difference between the style from Constantine’s days and the reliefs of the other emperors.

Siege of Verona    N. 6
Battle Milivan bridge    N. 7

After the year 300, sculpting as an art was barely able to depict figures and landscapes naturalistically. There are but a handful of reliefs from the days of Constantine. Only the friezes directly above the small arches and the medals on the narrow sides hail from the early 4th century (numbers 1, 2, 6, 7, 18, 19, 23 and 24). The manner in which the sculpture was performed at the friezes (numbers: 1, 6, 7, 18, 23 en 24) has nothing to do with classical art anymore.

Arch Constantine: relief Siege of Verona
photos: Egisto Sani and Battle Milvian bridge

Lion hunt Sacrifice Diana (numbers 28 29)
Constantine hands out subsidies (congiarium) in Caesar’s Forum (number 24)

Arch Constantine:  tondo Lion hunt       Sacrifice Diana
photo: Carole Raddato

The small figures were placed rather unnaturally in an architectonic frame. When you look at the folds, which is only possibly with a binocular, you’ll see that they’re but shallow grooves that are hardly convincing. The heads and bodies of the sculpted people are far from realistic, but rather schematic indications. Moreover, the arrangement of the figures was determined via a strict hierarchy. Constantine is right in the centre and towers above anything else. Even with Constantine now having lost his head.

Very different when compared to the two medals from the early 2nd century above this frieze, where Hadrianus is seen hunting and sacrificing to Hercules. The manner in which sculptors from the days of Constantine shaped their design will become dominant in the Middle Ages. It was no longer around portraying things realistically, but to convey the divine message, a Christian one, to the viewer. Precisely as we’ve seen this Saturday afternoon in the Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura at the 7th century apse mosaic.

Herman Van Swanevelt ‘Arch of Constantine’ 1645  
Piranesi Arch of Constantine c. 1750
Gerard ter Borch Battle Dacians Arch of Constantine 1609      
Etienne Dupérac Arch of Constantine mid-16th century    

Herman Van Swanevelt ‘Arch of Constantine’ 1645  

We now walk to the Colosseum. In this amphitheatre, gladiators fought for eternal glory or their lives. It is here where criminals and Christians faced a gruesome death.

Colosseum Arch  Constantine
photo: Livioandronico2013

Continuation Rome day 3: Colosseum and his history I