Sunday, October 4, 2015

The History of Constantine the Great through the Eyes of a 17th century Baroque artist, Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens, The Marriage of Constantine and Fausta, 
The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website
Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who is celebrated as the first Christian emperor has been a source of inspiration and fascination for more than sixteen centuries. As a remarkable figure who changed the course of history, Constantine embodies a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Personally, I feel a certain kinship with the man who founded my beloved city, Constantinople, Istanbul. There is a new exhibition, Rome, Emperor Constantine's Dream, Art Treasures from the Eternal City, that opened at De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam today, which reminded me of a set of 17th century tapestries, The History of Constantine the Great, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Triumph of Constantine over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25  (Philadelphia Museum of Art)    Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website
The vast Roman Empire had become a tetrarchy by 293, ruled by two senior emperors titled Augustus and two minor emperor titled Caesar, a system that came to an end following Civil Wars between the co-emperors from 306 -324.   Constantine's victory over his co-emperor and brother-in-law, Maxentius, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 is considered to be the precursor to the end of the tetrarchy and Constantine as the sole emperor of the Roman Empire.

The Christian symbol of Christ, Chi Ro (XP) can be seen at the top center of each tapestry. According to ancient chroniclers, the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, on October 28, 312, Constantine had a vision that assured him victory if his army carried the sign of the Chi Ro into battle on their shields. This is interpreted as the first sign of Constantine's conversion to Christianity.

Peter Paul Rubens, Constatnine's Triumphal Entry into Rome,
The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website 
The celebrated 17th century artist, Peter Paul Rubens was responsible for designs of the seven tapestries, that were commissioned in 1622, woven for the French King Louis XIII and gifted to Cardinal Barberini, in 1625, who was in Paris on a diplomatic mission for his uncle, Pope Urban VIII.  The choice of Rubens for the tapestries is thought to be associated with the artist being in Paris in 1622 due to Marie de Medici, the Queen Mother, who commissioned two monumental decorative cycles for her residence, the Luxembourg Palace.

The use of Constantine iconography is also associated with Henry IV, father of King Louis XIII, who was hailed as the new Constantine after his conversion to Catholicism.2 In Constantine's Triumphal Entry into Rome, Rubens is using a confluence of symbols from contemporary events that allude to Henry IV's entry into Paris in 1594 with a scene that recalls a similar relief from the Triumphal Arch of Constantine in Rome.

Peter Paul Rubens, Constantine Directing the Building of Constantinople, The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website

After he became the sole emperor of Rome, Constantine began to build a new Christian capital in the Greek city of Byzas which was named Constantinople, after him. In Constantine Directing the Building of Constantinople, the city seen in the distance is supposed to be Constantinople and the circular building the architect, holding a plan of the Pantheon, is pointing towards, the Church of the Holy Apostles, where Constantine was buried. The eagle carrying the laurel wreath is about to crown the architect for his success in turning a pagan city to a Christian one. This tapestry is also thought to be alluding to Henry IV's building program in early 17th century that restored Paris from an ancient to a great capital.

Peter Paul Rubens, Constantine Worshiping the True Cross, Indicated by Saint Helena, The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website
Helena, Constantine's mother, is attributed with Constantine's conversion to Christianity by some scholars. She is venerated as a Saint due to her contribution to Christianity, she supposedly found the True Cross in Jerusalem during her trip to the Holy Land.

The tapestry borders are a mix of pagan and Christian symbols with the eagle and the serpent at the bottom center representing Christ's victory over Satan.  Henry IV became the King of Navarre before he became the King of France. The two imperial shields on the right and left center of the borders are the coat of arms of the French royal family. The blue shield with the gold fleur-de-lis on the left hand side represent France and the gold chains over a red shield to the right represent Navarre.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Baptism of Constantine, The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25   (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website 
Although Constantine was baptized on his deathbed, Rubens chose to represent him being baptized by Pope Sylvester in the Baptistery of St John Lateran in Rome. The clothing of the man standing in the right foreground, seems to be in the 17th century fashion, it has been suggested that he may have been someone from Rubens' own time, maybe even King Louis XIII. The richly decorated, curving columns that can still be seen in the Vatican today, were given to the church by Constantine showing his support of the early church. 3

Peter Paul Rubens, The Death of Constantine, The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series, 1623-25 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art Website 
The last episode Rubens depicted in The History of Constantine the Great series was The Death of Constantine. Rubens used the description from Constantine's 4th century biographer Eusebius to represent Constantine dividing his empire among his three sons as he sits on an elaborate antique bed. He also based the setting on ancient Roman carvings of funerary scenes where the protagonist would be surrounded by grieving family and friends. The tapestries with their strong lighting and dramatic poses are great examples of 17th century Baroque style. The curtain hanging above the bed in this tapestry works to enhance the drama.

Pietro da Cortona, The Sea Battle between the Fleets of Constantine and Licinius, 1635
Although he was instructed to not except any gifts, the seven tapestries designed by Rubens were presented to Cardinal Barberini by Louis XIII in September 1625 when he came to Paris to settle a dispute between France, Spain and the Papacy. When he went back to Rome, Cardinal Barberini opened his own tapestry factory, commissioned Pietro da Cortona to design six more tapestries to complete the set given to him by Louis XIII of France. These tapestries were woven in the workshop of Jacomo della Riviera. The borders of these tapestries recalled the six Rubens designed with minor changes in iconography. The top center was reserved for the Chi Ro but the French coat of arms were replaced by bumblebees, the sign of the Barberini family and the Eagle with the serpent at the bottom with a laurel wreath, the symbol of victory.

Pietro da Cortona, Tapestry showing the Statue of Constantine, 1636
These tapestries are exceptional specimens of a certain form of art that encompass layer upon layer of significant events, people and the culture that shaped 17th century Europe. They are not just works of art to be admired but the visual manifestation of a specific time in history and they have so much to offer to so many people. Initially, I was interested due to the subject matter, but as I looked more carefully and researched the history of these tapestries, I found a wealth of information that told the tale of religious conflict, assertion of Counter-Reformation ideals precipitating civil wars in the Low Countries causing the devastation of the whole tapestry industry and the dispersement of the best artists and weavers throughout Europe.  The History of Constantine the Great tapestry series would be a great tool to teach history. Wouldn't it be great if history teachers took their students to art museums to see works like these when teaching European history?
Pietro da Cortona, Apparition of the Cross before Constantine, 1633
Pietro da Cortona, Constantine Slaying the Lion,1637
Pietro da Cortona, Constantine Burning the Memorials, 1634
Pietro da Cortona, Constantine Ordering the Destruction of Pagan Idols, 1637

1 Dubon, David. Tapestries From the Samuel H. Kress Foundation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: The History of Constantine the Great Designed by Peter Paul Rubens and Pietro Da Cortona. Complete Catalogue of the Samuel H. Kress Collection. London: Published by the Phaidon for the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1964. p. 4.

2 Campbell, Thomas P., Pascal-François Bertrand, Jeri Bapasola, and Bruce White. Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007. p. 162.

3 Philadelphia Museum of Art


  1. Some Cloth Tapestries have outlasted some Stone and Marble Scupltures and Buildings. How's that?

    1. Hi Carmen, the tapestries were used inside as opposed to the sculptures that were open to the elements and they were considered precious objects and preserved carefully. The sculptures may have been damaged due to earthquakes, wars,or even used as spolia in other structures.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...