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Arch of Constantine, Rome, 312-315 CE

26 Aug

Throughout the history of Christianity, the use of syncretism, or the merging of different traditions into one piece of art or architecture, has allowed an inclusive approach toward the spread of Christianity through cultures committed to other religions. Syncretism was famously used during the rule of the Byzantine emperor Constantine in the Arch of Constantine. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to be Christian, which caused many Romans to be uneasy about Constantine and his ability to rule effectively. To quell the Roman people’s fears, Constantine commissioned the start of the Arch of Constantine to commemorate his unification of Rome.

The Arch of Constantine is a unique piece of architecture because it consists of spolia, or decorative sculpture previously used in other monuments. Constantine wanted to convey the ideology and philosophy of previous rulers on the Arch by using spolia from monuments that commemorated the Golden Age Emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. By using spolia from monuments that were popular and familiar with the Roman people in the Arch, Constantine assured the people that he too could achieve Pax Romana (long period of relative peace within the Roman Empire) like the Golden Age emperors. Wanting to emphasize Constantine’s leadership in battle, Roman artists took a relief from a monument dedicated to Trajan and incorporated it into the Arch. Trajan’s head was replaced with Constantine’s and a new inscription, saying “The Liberation of the City”, was inscribed above the relief. Syncretism was again used to show Constantine’s leadership in virtue by taking a frieze from a monument dedicated to Hadrian and including it into the arch. The frieze illustrates a number of hunting scenes as well as scenes of sacrifices to the gods. Because Hadrian was known for strengthening the empire rather than trying to enlarge it, the hunt shows his virtue and by extension, Constantine’s virtue. Lastly, panels were taken from a monument devoted to Marcus Aurelius and placed on the Arch. Marcus’ head is replaced with Constantine’s to show the Roman people Constantine’s ability to rule peacefully and morally.

The use of syncretism in the Arch of Constantine was a contributing factor to the success of Constantine as the emperor of Rome. By using spolia that was familiar with the people of Rome, Constantine was able to prove to the people and the Senate how committed he was to Rome despite his conversion to Christianity.

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