Church of Santa Constanza (the mausoleum of Constantina) – a little known pearl of early Christian art

View of the old mausoleum (present-day Church of Santa Constanza) belonging to the cemetery basilica of  Sant’Agnese

View of the old mausoleum (present-day Church of Santa Constanza) belonging to the cemetery basilica of Sant’Agnese

Only few tourists reach this place, far away from the center of Rome, at via Nomentana, although it is truly exceptional. Generally it is associated with two structures – early medieval Basilica of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura from the VII century and with the Church of Santa Constanza, or more appropriately late-antique mausoleum of Constantina. Let us concentrate on this last building. It is hard to believe, that it is only a fraction of a larger building arrangement, which was located here. Here, right in front of our eyes (preserved only as a ruin), stretches one of the most interesting but also  the most mysterious structures of late antiquity, which to this day sets ablaze the emotions of archeologists and art historians – a great cemetery basilica from the IV century of our era.

View of the old mausoleum (present-day Church of Santa Constanza) belonging to the cemetery basilica of  Sant’Agnese
Church of Santa Constanza (the former Mausoleum of Constantina) present-day enterance into the church
Outline of the apse of the ancient cemetery basilica of Sant’Agnese from the IV century
Church of Santa Constanza (the former Mausoleum of Constantina)
Walls of the old cemetery basilica of Sant’Agnese
View of the old mausoleum (present-day Church of Santa Constanza) belonging to the cemetery basilica of  Sant’Agnese
Oculus in the apse of the old cemetery basilica of Sant’Agnese
Fragment of the wall of the old cemetery basilica of Sant’Agnese, the so-called opus listanum
Plan of the so-called Caementarium Agnese with the outline of the cemetery basilica and the Mausoleum  Constantina which is a part of it, via Nomentana
Santa Constanza, interior of the old Mausoleum of Constanza, present-day church
Church of Santa Constanza, Constantina’s sarcophagus (copy)
Santa Constanza, columns supporting the tambour, detail
Sarcophagus of Constantina, Musei Vaticani
Sarcophagus of Constantina, fragment, Musei Vaticani
Church of Santa Constanza, mosaics in the ambulatory
Church of Santa Constanza, mosaics in the ambulatory from the IV century
Church of Santa Constanza, mosaics in the ambulatory
Church of Santa Constanza, mosaics in the ambulatory
Church of Santa Constanza, Christian mosaics – Christ the Pantocrator with St. Peter
Church of Santa Constanza, Christian mosaics, fragment with the enthroned Christ and St. Peter
Church of Santa Constanza, Christian mosaics, Christ on a mountain in Paradise
Church of Santa Constanza, niche – mosaics with a representation of St. Peter
Santa Constanza, niche – fragment with a representation of St. Paul
Church of Santa Constanza, view of the dome with frescoes from the XVII century
Fragment of the apse of the cemetery basilica of Sant’Agnese
Church of Santa Constanza, enterance portal (old Mausoleum of Constanza)
Church of Santa Constanza, interior of the present-day church, previously the Mausoleum of Constanza
Church of Santa Constanza, mosaics in the ambulatory, fragment
Church of Santa Constanza, Christian mosaics, fragment of the garland adorning one of the church niches
Church of Santa Constanza, mosaics of the old mausoleum

Only few tourists reach this place, far away from the center of Rome, at via Nomentana, although it is truly exceptional. Generally it is associated with two structures – early medieval Basilica of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura from the VII century and with the Church of Santa Constanza, or more appropriately late-antique mausoleum of Constantina. Let us concentrate on this last building. It is hard to believe, that it is only a fraction of a larger building arrangement, which was located here. Here, right in front of our eyes (preserved only as a ruin), stretches one of the most interesting but also  the most mysterious structures of late antiquity, which to this day sets ablaze the emotions of archeologists and art historians – a great cemetery basilica from the IV century of our era.

 

Our knowledge of the so-called cemetery basilicas is rather modest, while scientists still do not agree on their purpose – a cult of the martyrs, a cemetery, or perhaps cult of the imperial family itself? Additional difficulty arises from the fact, that we do not know the Christian funerary habits of the first three centuries – while we are quite familiar with the pagan ones. Romans (pagans) very often visited the graves of their dead, since they were convinced of the great power that the dead possess in the afterlife. In some months bread crumbs and wine were placed upon their graves, in others violets, in still others roses. The tradition of frequent visits of the dead and joint feasting near their graves was extremely common in ancient times. Flowers were laid, lamps lit in the place of their burial and together with the whole family the aforementioned feasts were organized. Wine was not shied away from, it was given to the dead as well, pouring the refreshing beverage through a special funnel into the ground. The representative character of pagan funerals, with a funeral conduct of official guests, incense, funeral speeches, followed by a funeral feast (wake), without a doubt was adopted by Christians and enriched by their faith in eternal life, but also in meeting after death. Roman traditions (pagan) were also modified. In this way instead  of the day of the birth of the deceased the day of his death was celebrated (birth into a new life). Undoubtedly it was the Christians who initiated the habit of a burial near the tomb of a martyr, which was to guarantee his support both for the deceased and for his living family, and thus (thanks to his protection) greater assurance of eternal life.

Presently in the location where the old cemetery Basilica of Sant’Agnese stood, there are imagination-stirring fragments of the western apse and southern nave, which outline their shapes around the green pitch, on which children play football. In the past the structure was imposing indeed: with a length of 98 meters, width of 40 meters and breadth of 17 meters. It was created between 337 and 351 A.D. at the initiative of Constantina – the daughter of Emperor Constantine the Great, considered to be the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire. Similar structures in the form of the letter U, often called circus basilicas due to their shape (shape borrowed from the then circuses), started appearing at that time at the initiative of Emperor Constantine and his family, rather densely on the exit routes from Rome. This one, just as the others (at via Tiburtina, Praenestina, Labicana, and Appia), was erected on imperial grounds. The basilica at via Nomentana is the best preserved, although only in partial form. The walls were built of layers of brick and tuft (opus listanum), which enabled inexpensive and rapid rate of construction. The interior possessed an ambulatory, thus dividing the building into naves, of which the central one which is also the highest and broadest is supported by a row of columns and pillars, allowing the greatest amount of light. The windows were also found in the apse and the side naves. In the western part of the structure parts of the foundations were preserved, testifying that in the past (perhaps) there was a choir and a presbytery, designated most likely for the conducted cult. The main body of the basilica was most likely bereft of a floor, since the dead were buried there – therefore it was a type of a covered cemetery, perhaps with a place for feasts.

 

The tomb of St. Agnes found in the nearby catacombs (catacombs of St. Agnes), provided this place with an especially sanctified character, it was revered and respected. Thus, it may be assumed that the basilica served as a place of eternal rest of wealthy, respected Romans, who were Christians or who sympathized with them, were members of the imperial family, or were connected with the imperial court and due to the close proximity of a person sanctified by martyrdom desired to ensure themselves with her intercession in the afterlife. Yet, perhaps this proximity was unimportant for Romans at that time and its rank was not highlighted until later. We still cannot unanimously answer these questions, even today.

The enterance to the basilica was found at via Nomentana and was preceded by a long, almost 90 meter atrium, which bordered broad steps leading directly to the tomb of the martyr in the nearby catacombs.

Due to the fact that the founding document was not preserved, the first mention of the Basilica of Sant’Agnese can be found in a document that is important for the Church and Rome – the official papal chronicle which also contains a list of donations and foundations - Liber Pontificalis. It states that at the behest of his daughter Constantina, Constantine erected a basilica to honor the martyr Agnes and for the glory of Christ. This information comes from the VI century, and is in direct opposition to the inscription of the consecration of the basilica kept in the supplement, in which we can read:

CONSTANTINA DEUM VENERANS CHRISTOQUE DICATA

OMNIBUS IMPENSIS DEVOTA MENTE PARATIS                       

NUMINE DIVINO MULTAM CHRISTOQUE IUVANTE

SACRAVIT TEMPLUM VITRICIS AGNES

TEMPLORUM QUOD VINCIT OPUS TERRENAQUE CUNCTA

I, CONSTANTINA, VENERATING GOD AND CONSECRATED TO CHRIST HAVING DEVOUTLY PROVIDED FOR ALL EXPENSES, WITH CONSIDERABLE DIVINE INSPIRATION AND CHRIST ASSISSTING, HAVE DEDICATED THE TEMPLE OF THE VICTORIOUS VIRGIN AGNES.

 

This inscription testifies not only of Constantina’s direct engagement into the construction of the basilica, but also of her Christian faith which she wished to express. We can therefore, assume that the basilica was a place of commemoration of the saint revered within and a place of Eucharistic ceremonies taking place within. However, it also fulfilled another very important function: through the imperial mausoleum which was a part of it, it served as a de facto demonstration of the power of the emperor and his family.

In time when, imperial protection was no more, the forgotten basilica deteriorated and started to go to ruin. Still in the VIII century it underwent renovation, but later any news of it was lost, while the walls slowly crumbled, until the building itself started gradually disappearing from the face of the earth.


The only significant remains of the basilica is the preserved until today, presently free-standing, but in the past adjacent to it, mausoleum. It was designated for Constantina, whose sarcophagus (a copy) is still found within today. Most likely the sarcophagus of her sister Helen is also inside. It can be assumed that it was a place of dynastic glory, perhaps built with the idea of other imperial family members. The mausoleum lost the columns surrounding it on the outside, giving it beauty and distinction, but it is still maintained in a very good condition. It is a central building with a double row of columns which support short parts of the architrave, while those support the gargantuan, filled with a row of windows tambour, on which the dome rests.

The interior, surrounded by twelve double columns has a row of rectangular and semi-circular niches, out of which the three larger are found at the ends of the axis of the cross inscribed into the shape of a circle. In the largest one, found across from the enterance, the porphyry sarcophagus of Constantina once stood. The original can today be seen at the Vatican Museums (Musei di Vaticano). It is worthy of our attention since on its walls there are symbols of life and  of posthumous wander, so important to ancient Romans – pagan symbols, which were quickly adapted by Christian art. The putti occupied with gathering grapes can be interpreted as the souls of the deceased, the peacock as a symbol of immortality, while the lamb as a sacrificial animal for Bachus and Eros, but at the same time as the Lamb of God – the sacrifice of Christ. On the sides of the sarcophagus we will find putti stomping grapes – the wine which will be made from them, was of exceptional significance to the Romans. It was believed to be a beverage which gave strength to overcome death. It is therefore, the same wine, which in the Eucharist is given an eschatological dimension by Christians.

 

The first impression after entering through the modest portico of the building is surprising indeed. A ray of light illuminates the center leaving the ambulatory hidden in shadows. In the past, just as today, it shone on an altar that was located here. In this case once again we are faced with Christians adapting antique symbols: the element of light as divine emanation was known to them through ancient fascinations with light illuminations, for instance in the cult of the god Sol, who was worshipped by Constantine himself, before the emperor became a faithful Christian (or perhaps even simultaneously). The process of antiquity moving to the era of early Christianity is well visible in the decorations of the interior as well. The walls of the mausoleum were in the past decorated with marble slabs, of which only traces from the nails used to mount them remain, as well as with floor and wall mosaics. The last ones deserve special attention. They fill the barrel vault of the ambulatory and depict areas with geometric shapes, medallions and coffers in which we will see the images of birds (pigeons, peacocks, chicks, parrots), fruit and putti. Among them there are squares showing scenes of grape gathering, transport and preparations for wine production. Among the grapevines we will come across larger images of a man and a woman, which most likely depict the images of Constantina and her first husband Hannibalianus. We will also notice spread out branches, dishes, horn of plenty, winged geniuses, as if symbolic remains of the gifts brought for the dead on the day of a visit, while also being symbols of the immortal soul and eternal life. This illusionism and usage of chiaroscuro make this representation a typical canon of ancient art. The only scenes which can truly be called Christian, but which also stem out of antique tradition, are those found in the western and eastern niches of the mausoleum. Restored in the XIX century, they were greatly altered, but fortunately we know their XVI-century description. In one we will see bearded Christ in a purple cloak sitting on the globe. He is dresses like a Roman emperor and just as he, is equipped with a nimbus – his power stretches over the whole world, that is why instead of a throne he deserves a globe. He is giving keys (which currently are very difficult to recognize) to a very young St. Peter. Initially the mosaic represented St. Peter as an old man with a grey beard, facing the onlooker. We are to unequivocally understand that Peter’s authority comes from Christ – the ruler of the world. On the other side, this time a very young blond-haired Christ with a raised arm (in a gesture of adlocutio), as the emperor greeting his armies stands on a mountain in Eden, from which four springs spout. He is accompanied on either side by the apostles Peter and Paul, the first is holding a scroll with the laws of the Christian faith written on it. He is holding it, as was dictated by the official imperial ritual, not directly but through his clothes – as was done by senators of consuls, receiving documents from the sanctified hands of the emperor. Paul, on the other hand raises his hand in the gesture of acclamatio, the Roman sign of harmony and obedience. On both sides of the scene small houses are visible – buildings symbolizing Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a motif directly connected with the roots of Christianity. In this scenery it was impossible to overlook lambs – symbolizing the faithful – and palm trees associated with eternal life and the martyrdom of both the saints, but also the symbol of the garden of Eden, in which these three principal heroes of the Church already find themselves. As it seems, the trust of the then Christians, and their strong devotion to Christ was built on the persona of a teacher, a lawgiver and a shepherd of the flock. Perhaps from whence comes this interesting representation of Christ, as if in two parts – a youthful shepherd and a mature guardian of the law.

 

As some scientist assume, the motif which is shown here of Traditio Legis, meaning Christ surrounded by Peter and Paul with paradise and twelve sheep adoring the Lamb of God in the background, first appeared in the nonexistent early-Christian Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano. Most likely it was this very motif that inspired the oldest preserved representation. Both of the scenes depicted in the mausoleum also tell us a lot about the doctrine of faith from those times. They were most likely the expression of the success of Emperor Constantine in his struggle for Christian unity. After years of unending quarrels between advocates of orthodoxy, meaning the representatives of belief in the divine consubstantiality of Christ and God the Father, and Arians (Arianism), who put Christ on a lower level – not God, but the Son of Man, the victory of orthodoxy is clearly visible.  Here is Christ, consubstantial to God, wielding authority over the whole world in God’s name. The representation on the mosaic in the mausoleum of Constantina, therefore, constituted an expression of the Church doctrine in force – respected until the present day, and proclaimed only a decade prior, in the year 325 A.D., during the Council of Nicaea.

Unfortunately, the mosaics in the dome were not preserved, and they are only known to us through XVI-century sketches, which were to represent acanthus and candelabra forms, between which there were scenes from the Old and New Testament. Today, the dome is decorated with a fresco painted here in the XVII century.

Not just the mosaics, but the structure of the building itself, speak of the highest level of artistic and aesthetic ability, which is also an excellent testimony to the era of late antiquity with its love for the form of a central structure and finesse of mosaic art. After centuries filled with a lack of monumental architecture and shying away from representative art (apart from the catacombs we do not know of any Christian art of sculpture from the previous centuries), Christianity incorporates antique elements.

Already in the VI century the mausoleum was changed into a church dedicated to Santa Constanza, which saved it from slow deterioration, which became the fate of the cemetery basilica. But who was this St. Constanza or perhaps Constantina?