Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 12, 2007
Elizabeth Hartley, Jane Hawkes, and Martin Henig, eds. Constantine the Great: York's Roman Emperor Exh. cat. Aldershot, UK: Lund Humphries in association with York Museums Trust, 2006. 280 pp.; 250 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $100.00 (0853319286)
Exhibition schedule: Yorkshire Museum, York, March 31–October 29, 2006
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Constantine is the man of the hour. The 1700th anniversary of his ascent into the ruling circle of the Roman Empire, just as the administration of shared authority instituted by Diocletian was about to break apart in civil war, is being celebrated across Europe. Rimini led off in 2005 with an important show and sumptuous catalogue (Angela Donati and Giovanni Gentili, eds., Costantino il Grande: La civiltà antica al bivio tra Occidente e Oriente, Milano: Cinisello Balsamo, 2005). The volume under review here, the catalogue of York’s effort in the fall of 2006, is the second entry in the Constantinian sweepstakes. And coming in the summer and fall of 2007, Trier will launch a triple venue exhibition, Konstantin der Grosse, at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, the Bischöfliches Dom- und Diözesanmuseum, and the Stadtmuseum Simeonstift.

The young Constantine was providentially in York when his father, Constantius Chlorus, died there in July of 306. Under the rules of Diocletian’s system, as renewed in its second phase when Diocletian and his colleague Maximian retired in 305, the succession to Constantius Chlorus as senior partner of the western duo belonged to his junior colleague Flavius Valerius Severus. But the soldiers in York saluted Constantine as Emperor, and Constantine, not unwilling, answered their call. (He subsequently accepted Severus as Augustus while he was to be Severus’ junior colleague as Caesar; but his self-promotion at York was, nonetheless, the first blow to the empire’s system of collegial administration.)

York can thus lay claim to Constantine because it was the site of his entry onto the center stage of history, although his connection with the English city is far less than that which Frederick II, for instance, had with his native Palermo. But there is more at stake in this exhibition and catalogue than simply to mark the anniversary of that day. Rather, the focus is on highlights of life and culture in England in the wake of Constantine’s rule. England was part of an empire that militarily and politically had caught its breath under the tetrarchs but which was also subject to the consequences of Constantine’s recognition of Christianity, the spiritual revolution by which he changed the course of history.

The organizers of the show reached across the Channel for some outstanding objects from the Continent. The gold fibula from the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier inscribed in commemoration of the decennalia of Constantine and Licinius (315, no. 73) is one such example. Another is a large cameo in Utrecht showing Constantine, armed with Jupiter’s thunderbolt, along with his empress Fausta, and Crispus, his son by his first wife Minervina, in a chariot drawn by centaurs (no. 76). The British Museum lent thirty-three gold coins and medals from the Beaurains (Arras) Hoard (nos. 11–45); the famous medal of Maximianus entering London in the Musée d’Arras was, alas, present only in an electrotype. With them from the same hoard were displayed twelve pieces of jewelry, rings, pendants, necklaces, bracelets, and a cameo with the head of Medusa (nos. 46–58). Another splendid medal of Constantine—his portrait on the obverse, the reverse showing the emperor enthroned between his sons Constantine II and Constantius II from Helleville (Normandy) and part of the collection of Geld en Bankmuseum, Utrecht—is no. 79. Leiden lent a fine portrait in tetrarchic style (no. 139).

But the British Isles are not outdone by these continental pieces. The Water Newton Treasure of silver (and one silver plaque with a gold disk) in the British Museum was on display (nos. 196–222). The centerpiece of the hoard is a silver kantharos bearing the inscription sanctum altare tuum, Domine, subnixus honoro (“In my trust, O Lord, I honor your holy altar”) with Chi-Rho and Alpha and Omega. Another beaker has the inscription Alpha Chi-Rho Omega Innocentia et Viventia (dedicaver) ut (“Alpha Chi-Rho Omega Innocentia and Viventia dedicated [this]”). Other plaques are marked with the Alpha and Omega with the Christogram. This is church silver plate, and the whole treasure seems to belong to the late fourth or early fifth century. The Traprain Law Treasure (National Museum of Scotland) is made up of thirty-two pieces of silver plate, at least half of them fragmentary, having been deliberately cut up. With the exception of the fish engraved on the plate (no. 251) and the Old Testament scenes decorating the pitcher (no. 234), the character of the decoration is pagan. There is a striking head of Hercules (no. 245), hunting scenes (no. 246), Bacchus on a leopard (no. 243), and a repoussé scene of a Bacchic procession (no. 238). The hoard included coins of Valens and of Arcadius and Honorius, thus dating it to the end of the fourth century. The catalogue follows the hypothesis that this is a treasure put together by a Gothic soldier, since the silver elements for belts and another harness in the hoard (nos. 257–262) can be paralleled in eastern and central Europe, and the woman’s brooch (no. 256) is characteristic of German women’s costume.

The silver Lanx from Risley Park in the British Museum (no. 226) is the first piece of silver plate known to have been found in Britain. It is decorated with scenes of hunting and four profile heads in relief at the corners. It also bears the inscription Exuperius Episcopus Ecclesiae Bogiensi dedit Chi-Rho (“Bishop Exuperius gave it to the Bogiensian church”). This is only one of the pieces from the exhibition that illustrate the continued life of traditional scenes from pagan art in the Christian empire. The show also included one of the detached fragments of the Cotton Genesis of the late fifth or early sixth century (British Museum) illustrating the story of Lot and the Angels (no. 231).

Among other pieces of the show are the elegant silver mirror from Wroxeter in the Shrewsbury Museum (no. 136) and a fragment of the Notitia dignitatum, copied in 1472 from a manuscript in Speyer. The fragment is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (no. 96). Early in the catalogue one finds the classicizing head of Constantine from York itself, now in the York Museum (no. 9). Of particular interest for Constantine and Christianity is the central roundel of the Hinton St. Mary mosaic showing the bust of Christ, Christogram behind and flanked by pomegranates (no. 190). The surrounding scenes of the mosaic are seasons, dogs engaged in the hunt, and Bellerophon attacking the Chimaera. The author of the catalogue entry, Martin Henig, points out that it is possible to see Christian references in all these images: Bellerophon, for example, being a metaphor for Christ and the hunting scenes reminiscent of Psalm XXII. But there is also a possible secular, if not pagan, interpretation. Quite aside from the fact that a hieratic emblem such as this facing bust of Jesus hardly invites the Christian to tread on it, what if Christ and the Christogram had become, for the non-Christian, just another lucky charm? The presence of this image in such an overwhelmingly pagan setting simply underlines the difficulty of interpreting the meaning of many images in this age of spiritual transition.

Fully one-third of the publication is given over to essays related to the exhibition. The death of Constantius Chlorus and his son’s acclamation are reviewed in essays by Averil Cameron, Paul Bridwell, and Ian Wood. Constantius’ real base was at Trier, as Cameron acknowledges, although perhaps she overstates the importance of the city’s early fourth-century buildings by claiming that the Trier basilica (still standing today) was “the model for the first Constantinian churches in Rome” (23). Simon Corcoran takes the reader into the working life of the emperor, from his attention to the legal appeals of private citizens, his correspondence with office holders, and especially his dealings with the Christians, whose disputes among themselves often tried the emperor’s patience. A culminating moment came when Constantine organized and presided over the Council of Nicea in 425.

Henig’s essay entitled “Art in the Age of Constantine” stresses the importance of radiance, texture, and color in the art of the Constantinian era, with the emphasis on official status shown especially by the Decennalia Base in the Roman Forum and the reliefs of the Arch of Constantine. He further elaborates on two themes in art of the Constantinian period, the hunt and the feast, and comments on cameos and engraved gemstones as indicators of the refined taste of the ruling classes. The exploration of the significance of the luminous background in Late Antique art was a major contribution of Alois Riegl to the study of this period (Die Spätrömische Kunstindustrie nach den Funden in Österreich-Ungarn, I, Vienna, 1901; English translation by Roll Winkes, Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider, 1985), and the hieratic imperative of the imperial art of late Rome was succinctly defined by H. P. L’Orange in Art Forms and Civic Life in the Late Roman Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965) (cf., the same author’s Das spätantike Herrscherbild von Diokletian bis zu den Konstantin-Söhnen, 284–361 n. Chr., Berlin: Mann, 1984). The “colorizing” of form that characterizes the Late Antique is a subject that, at least for architecture, has profited from recent interest in ancient colored marbles in general (M. De Nuccio and L. Ungaro eds., I marmi colorati della Roma imperiale, Venice: Marsilio, 2002). It is important to remember, however, that there was constant tension and interplay between what we immediately think of as Late Antique style, linear and coloristic, and the strong tradition of high classical art. It was especially in fine silver plate, such as the pieces of the Traprain Law Treasure, that the classical style lived on at its best, but in sculpture many pieces of imperial art show a return to classical form from the austerity of tetrarchic art. The portrait of Constantine from York is a case in point.

The Arras Treasure is the subject of essays by Richard Abdy and Roger Tomlin. This spectacular hoard contained a wide selection of gold coins and some of the finest medals known, both from Constantinian and pre-Constantinian times. The hoard was scattered after it was accidentally discovered in 1922, but it has been reconstructed, as far as possible, by the work of Bastien and Metzger. The principal nucleus of material from the hoard is in the British Museum: thirty-four coins, two medals, fourteen pieces of jewelry, and two of silver plate. The coins and medals of the hoard are clearly connected to the practice of the donative, by which the inadequate pay of the soldiery and army officers was periodically supplemented by imperial largesse. The Arras Hoard is apparently the accumulation of coins from several donatives. Thanks to a graffito on a large silver piece, the officer can be identified as Vitalianus, son of Valerianus, who held the rank of protector. The scale of the donatives represented in the hoard suggests that the father may have advanced even farther than the son, to the rank of tribune or general.

In their respective second essays in the catalogue, Henig and Cameron address the question of Constantine and the Christian religion. There will never be unanimity regarding the depth and sincerity of Constantine’s relationship with Christianity before he actually accepted baptism on his deathbed. Recently, Hartwig Brandt has maintained the long-respected position that Constantine, while he flirted with the Christian religion, was still not divorced from paganism (Konstantin der Grosse: der erste christliche Kaiser; eine Biographie, München: Beck, 2006). But only four years earlier Arnaldo Marcone argued, following an equally distinguished tradition of scholarship, that Constantine was sincerely converted (Pagano e Cristiano, Vita e mito di Costantino, Roma-Bari: Laterza, 2002). In his essay “Religious Diversity in Constantine’s Empire,” Henig faces the institutional relationship of the emperor to pagan cult: “Convinced Christian that he was, Constantine . . . practiced a policy of tolerance toward diverse faiths.” Cameron agrees, writing that, “He had the enthusiasm of a convert and he did not deviate from his feeling that God had given him the task of using his imperial position to promote Christianity in the empire.” But Cameron adds, “He could not make the Roman Empire Christian in his own lifetime.”

Following the failure of the great persecution under Diocletian, it was clear that the empire would have to make its peace with the Christians. Constantine’s competitors, the Tetrarchs Galerius and Licinius, realized this as well as he. Constantine, however, was the agent who achieved the integration of Christianity into the structure of the state, although by doing so he guaranteed that the intense intolerance of the Christians would ultimately transform the empire. We shall never be able to probe the emperor’s inner thoughts and beliefs during the more than three decades of his reign. But it may be sufficient to say that in the eyes of his pagan subjects there was more than a little truth in his remark to Bishop Eusebius that he was the pastor of those outside the Christian Church (Life of Constantine IV, 24).

The York catalogue is handsomely produced and illustrated. There are few blemishes, although one might be mentioned: on page 89, the reading of the inscription on a detail of the Trier mosaic illustrated in figure 35 should be Quodvuldeus Andesasi pone Felox some dixit. The word “some” (sume), visible on figure 35, has been omitted, although it appears in the paraphrase of the text that follows, “Quodvoldeus (whose name means literally ‘what god wishes’) telling Andesasus to set a bowl down and Felix to pick it up.” This image from a moment in cult practice may be taken as emblematic of the catalogue, which brings together an important collection of objects that were meant to be seen, used, venerated, and treasured in the northern provinces of Constantine’s empire.

R. Ross Holloway
Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University

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