Epilogue
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Epilogue  When the magnificent chapel of Saint Sylvester was consecrated beside the church of the Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome in 1247, Pope Innocent IV was living in exile in Lyon because of fears he would be set upon by Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor. Innocent had excommunicated his rival just two years earlier for his refusal to cede territory and authority to the Roman see, and it was not until Frederick’s death three years later that Innocent would be able to return to Rome in triumph to gaze on this masterpiece of trecento art. Its ornate fresco cycle depicts Sylvester’s encounters with Constantine as recounted in the fifth- or sixth-century Life of Sylvester discussed in the introduction of this book. As we might expect, Pope Sylvester is depicted throughout as severe yet serene, supreme in the face of a sinful and submissive emperor. Constantine, by contrast, appears humble if not downright humiliated. He is nude and vulnerable as he receives the healing waters of baptism from Sylvester (Fig. 49) and spectacularly obsequious as he genuflects before the enthroned Pope to receive his crown. This was a Constantine perfectly suited to the needs of a papacy desperate to assert its supremacy over the secular ruler of Europe, a Constantine carefully groomed by a long succession of papal legend-makers intent on emphasizing the emperor’s submissive favoritism for the church to the exclusion of all else. No modern would contend that this thirteenth-century Constantine came at all close to the historical emperor of the fourth century ce. Nevertheless, the process this fresco cycle reflects—a process of creatively rereading and artfully misreading Constantine—began in the emperor’s own lifetime and continues through to the present. As we have seen in the preceding discussion, there was never any one Constantine, for this emperor, like any other, was at once wrapped up in a process of becoming that left him open to constant change, and also surrounded by a sea of subjects whose own impressions buffeted him with varied and variable expectations, demands, and interpretations. To his ancient subjects as indeed to us moderns, Constantine was always multiform, a work in progress, a figure operating on the horizons between the known and the unknown, the expected and the unexpected. This was evident from the testimony of Constantine himself, which describes the changes he believed he underwent in his life- 280 Epilogue time, and from the shifts in nomenclature and appearance we can witness in his titles and portraiture over the thirty-one years of his reign. It is also evident in the quite varied reactions we find to Constantine from the message makers charged with creating and transmitting the public image of the emperor to his subjects. These offer varied emphases depending on the predilections and viewpoints of their creators, emphases that, unsurprisingly, are variously refracted according to circumstance and perspective. Thus neither Constantine nor his contemporaries were able to define an essential and monolithic man behind the panegyrics and portraits, the legacies and legends left to us today. At the same time, however, these same panegyrists, artists, moneyers, and lawmakers tend to emphasize certain constants that recur throughout the reign: the power of light, the importance of victory, the prevalence of divine favor, and the significance of dynasty. The combination of these enduring constants with the gradual shift in emphases presented Constantine’s subjects with a variegated palette on which to draw when they went about constructing their own images of the emperor. Faced with this same variability, we are well advised not to brush these conflicts and contrasts aside but rather to face them squarely and attempt to account for their complexity. Figure 49. Constantine being baptized by Pope Sylvester, fresco Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome, 1248 CE and following. The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY. Photo by Gianni Dagli Orti, reproduced with permission. Epilogue 281 This does not mean that just any image of Constantine can or did emerge. The signs emanating from the emperor and his message makers are sufficiently circumscribed and the constants adequately repetitive to foreclose at least some avenues of interpretation. This can be seen most clearly from Constantine’s communiqu és with the one constituency for whom we have the most testimony: the community of Christians. Constantine’s surviving exchanges with this group show signs of favoritism that were open and pronounced, so much so that we can say with some confidence that few of his subjects could...


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