Constantine, one of the last emperors of a united Rome, was also a great builder. He had to be, for he was an adherent to a new religion, Christianity, which had yet to make its mark on the earth in wood, concrete, and plaster. A new religion needed new structures, new architecture, and new ways of looking at art. Constantine, whom no-one could accuse of underachieving in life, strove to make things new, yet not so novel as to become alien to Romans. Constantine’s vision was of a new Rome, not only tolerant to Christians but with a Roman Emperor who gave glory to the Christian God. His building projects would put the stamp of Christianity on a pagan world, and, not just incidentally, advance the glory of the emperor himself. Using the primary source of Eusebius, speaking in his The History of the Church From Christ to Constantine, we can better understand the achievements in art and architecture of Constantine’s empire, from his triumphal arch to his basilicas.
Eusebius employs foreshadowing as he recounts the events leading up to his reign. While some may see his constant praise of Constantine as bias, it is something more than that. Eusebius’ prose reflects some of the same changes that were happening in art. Just as figures in Antique and Medieval art do not cast shadows and exist on a higher spiritual plane, so do the historical figures of which Eusebius writes. Therefore, Constantine, even before his victory and conversion, is “a religious man” and also “an emperor and son of an emperor” (368). Eusebius views Constantine as a timeless whole; he is an emperor and was always destined to be so. Also, Eusebius constantly reminds us of Licinius’ coming madness, in phrases such as, “who at that time was still sane.” (368). Regardless of the real diagnosis of his mental state, Licinius will become a footnote in history; Eusebius is simply portraying a higher reality of what will eventually transpire. Thus, Constantine is always an emperor and Licinius is always defunct.
Like Eusebius’ writing, architecture was also changing. The Arch of Constantine (Fig. 10 – 76, Gardner) stands as a monument that honors the past, yet presages the future. Constantine, however, raided other monuments to achieve the friezes on his massive arch! (Gardner 295). Scholars, whose agenda is to denigrate the Middle Ages and see Constantine’s rule as the beginning of that era, have cited the “reuse of statues and reliefs…as evidence of a decline in creativity and technical skill” (Gardner 295). Yet the Arch of Constantine represents one of the few instances that Constantine’s building projects would conform to the old Roman traditions. He soon began building immense basilicas to house the new Christian faith, which no longer had to hide itself in houses or catacombs.
Eusebius, writing about the official toleration of Christianity, was unsatisfied with the proclamation; is “gave no encouragement to the holding of meetings or building of churches.” (373). No doubt Eusebius speaks for the feelings of his fellow Christians of that era; they needed a place of worship befitting the glory of their God. Constantine was to address this need in an immense fashion, beginning with his completion of the Basilica Nova. While only ruins of this grand structure remain, the Basilica Nova was truly huge (over 300 ft. long), and housed an impressive statue of Constantine (its massive head still survives). (Gardner 296). It is clear that Constantine’s rule still marks a transitional period in Christian history; today, no church has a huge, cult-like statue of its builder in the sanctuary! The structure’s concern with light, due to the “fenestration of the groin vaults” (Gardner 296), foreshadows the beautiful stained glass windows perfected in the Middle Ages. Constantine also builds a palace for himself in Germany, the Aula Palatina (Gardner 297). Its well-lit interior with its immense proportions is perhaps more impressive than its somber exterior. The Aula Palatina later became a church. (Gardner 297). Later, Constantine changed his focus to the east, where he erected numerous basilicas in his new capital of Constantinople (Gardner 307). Also, Old Saint Peter’s stood for many years in Rome, and today, Saint Peter’s, built in the same location, stands dear in the hearts of modern Roman Catholics.
To Eusebius, Constantine first “made things right with God” (371), and, indeed, to Christians, who had previously known only persecution by Rome, Constantine’s rule must have seemed a golden era. Eusebius reports there was “unspeakable happiness” during this time as Constantine made sure that “cathedrals were again rising from their foundations high into the air, and far surpassing in magnificence those previously destroyed by the enemy.” (382). Constantine’s building program housed Christianity like no other before it, or, perhaps, since. Whether or not Constantine’s rule truly began the Middle Ages, it certainly laid its foundations, and also impacted the evolving character of early Christianity. He had given the Christians places to worship; he had, in a sense, given them an empire, but he also gave them a heritage, monuments, and a sense of grandeur.
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed., Kleiner and Mamiya
The History of the Church From Christ to Constantine, Eusebius