The dawn of the fourth century must have seemed like the beginning of an endless night for the Christians of the Roman Empire.
As of 303, Emperor Diocletian, spurred on by his co-emperor Galerius, had unleashed a virulent round of persecutions, and it appeared that the imperial machine would not stop until it had ground Christianity into the dust.
And yet, in this darkest hour, the impossible happened; the two Augustii retired in 311; and, two years later, the new rulers Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity throughout the Empire.
In the words of a jubilant Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, "After a dreadful spectacle, we have been privileged to see and celebrate such things that many of the martyrs before us craved to see and did not."
The dreadful "spectacle" included the violent deaths of Christians in the arenas of the empire, and, thus, it seems fitting that the greatest of these arenas, the Colosseum, should host an exhibit honoring the 1,700th anniversary of religious liberty.
"Constantine: 313 A.D.," offers a hero’s welcome to the man who ended 300 years of persecution and put Christianity on equal footing with the many other belief systems of the empire.
The exhibit opened in Milan, where Constantine proclaimed the edict, and has now moved to Rome, where he won the battle that would change the course of Christianity.
The exhibit transports the visitor to the turbulent world of the early fourth century, where economic crisis and constant war left people in distress. The emperors styled their images as abstract and unapproachable, as the many portraits of Diocletian and Galerius testify, with their large, unseeing eyes gazing out, but not at their viewers.
A striking bust in purple porphyry from Serbia next to a copy of the colossal bronze head of Constantine gives the visitor an idea of how daunting the gigantic statues must have seemed in their day.
As Romans searched for meaning in life, the number of religions, cults and devotions grew exponentially. As Christians tried to bring the Good News of Christ to the pagan empire, they often met with hostility. Several sobering images illustrate first the derision (faint graffiti of a coarsely scratched stick figure on a cross with the head of a donkey), then the violence (ceramic bowls embossed with men and women offered to the lions). This was the fate of such saints as Perpetua and Felicity, as well as St. Ignatius of Antioch, perhaps in this very arena.
Battle and triumph turned the tables for the Christians. Constantine, fighting to unite the Empire under a common banner, defeated his rival Maxentius outside the gates of Rome on Oct. 28, 312. His standard of victory, the Labarum, is reconstructed as a crimson cloth with the Christological symbol of the Chi Rho emblazoned on it in gold. Across from this banner lie the spoils of Maxentius’ army. The glass orbs of Maxentius’ scepter, one of the most exciting finds of recent excavations, rest next to the eroded lances of his Pretorian Guard.
The exhibition then repeats Christ’s monogram like a victory chant. It appears on rings, pendants and plaques, some exquisitely carved in ivory or marble and others cast in elaborate bronze lanterns.
The sun had risen on the age of Christianity. Looking up from the display cases and through the ancient arches of the Colosseum, Constantine’s triumphal arch is visible out in the piazza, constructed to celebrate this great victory.
Nor does this exhibit forget the great woman behind this important man. St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, is represented by an elegant statue once kept in the papal garden of the Vatican Museums. Helena Augusta, who evangelized an emperor, reclines in her Roman throne, surrounded by numerous portrait busts and golden coins, which inform viewers how much she was revered in her own time. Helena’s legendary rediscovery of the True Cross in Jerusalem in 328 is recorded through the many costly reliquaries used to hold fragments of the precious wood.
Opulence was the norm at the imperial court: Two gilt ceremonial helmets inlaid with jewels and embossed silver drinking cups attest to the love of beauty among the Roman elite. Constantine’s favor bestowed upon the early Church many luxurious items, from a gold votive plaque found near the tomb of St. Peter to a rock-crystal lamp decorated with a fish motif, the early Christian symbol for Christ.
These few treasures are but faint vestiges of the sumptuous decoration lavished on the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the oldest church in the world, built by Constantine and dedicated to Christ, the Savior.
On May 15, His Holiness Bartholomew I of Constantinople joined Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, in celebrating this momentous event that had such far-reaching importance for both the East and the West.
On that occasion, Pope Francis conveyed his joy in recalling the "historic decision that, decreeing religious freedom for Christians, opened new paths to the Gospel and contributed decisively to the birth of European civilization."
Constantine’s decision also salvaged the Roman Empire in the wake of its collapse a century later. From the crest of the Caelian Hill, St. John Lateran benignly surveys the ruined amphitheater, calling to mind that it was the papacy that restored the Colosseum, preserved the Pantheon and collected the marvelous works of art that have inspired and delighted visitors for over a millennium.
Elizabeth Lev is an art historian
based in Rome.
‘Constantine: 313 A.D.’ will be on display until Sept. 15 at the Colosseum in Rome.