Pope Sylvester (? -335) – a marginal figure, yet a saint

San Silvestro in Capite, church apse with a representation of Pope Sylvester baptizing Emperor Constantine, Lodovico Gimignani

San Silvestro in Capite, church apse with a representation of Pope Sylvester baptizing Emperor Constantine, Lodovico Gimignani

Today we see him mainly as the patron of the last day of the year, but for centuries Sylvester was for the Catholic Church one of the most important figures – an influential pope and a saint. His life was closely tied to a legend, and that itself to the Church propaganda, which could care less for historical facts. And thus a story about a Roman bishop of little significance, who lived during breakthrough times for the Church, was filled with incredible, wondrous, almost fable-like tales.
San Silvestro in Capite, church apse with a representation of Pope Sylvester baptizing Emperor Constantine, Lodovico Gimignani
San Silvestro in Capite, church apse with a representation of Pope Sylvester baptizing Emperor Constantine, fragment, Lodovico Gimignani
San Silvestro in Capite, church vault - Gloria of Mary accompanied by St. Silvester and St. John the Baptist, Giacinto Brandi
Facade of the Church of San Silvestro in Capite
Top of the facade of the Church of San Silvestro in Capite, from the left - St. Francis, St. Silvester, St. Stefan, St. Klara
Statue of Pope Sylvester (Lorenzo Ottoni) in the facade of the Church of San Silvestro in Capite
Atrium of the church of S. Silvestro in Capite, inscription from the time of the first church
Apse of the church SS. Silvestro e Martino ai Monti
The facade of the church SS. Silvestro e Martino ai Monti
Pope Silvester, San Silvestro Oratory at the Church of the SS. Quattro Coronati
Pope Sylvester shows Emperor Constantine the images of the apostles, the Oratory of San Silvestro, the Church of S. Quattro Coronati
Pope Sylvester baptizes Emperor Constantine, Oratory of S. Silvestro, Church of the SS. Quattro Coronati
Pope Sylvester receives the phrygium from Emperor Constantine, S. Silvestro Oratory at the church SS Quattro Coronati
Pope Sylvester enters Rome, the Oratory of S. Silvestro at the Church of SS. Quattro Coronati
Pope Sylvester baptizes Emperor Constantine, Cristoforo Roncalli - S. Giovanni Baptistery, pic. Wikipedia
Today we see him mainly as the patron of the last day of the year, but for centuries Sylvester was for the Catholic Church one of the most important figures – an influential pope and a saint. His life was closely tied to a legend, and that itself to the Church propaganda, which could care less for historical facts. And thus a story about a Roman bishop of little significance, who lived during breakthrough times for the Church, was filled with incredible, wondrous, almost fable-like tales.
However, before we get to Sylvester we must mention the momentous Edict of Milan (313) published by Emperor Constantine, which gave the Christians the freedom to express their faith. If that was not enough, at the beginning of his reign (312), Constantine bestowed numerous privileges and foundations upon both Christians and the Bishop of Rome, while also giving them lands and exempting them from paying taxes. In such a favorable atmosphere the Roman Christian commune elected Sylvester as its next bishop. At that time he was thirty-some years old and was the son of a priest by the name of Rufinus. Let us recall that at that time the term "pope" did not exist. Sylvester, similarly to his thirty-two predecessors (and successors until 384 since that was the year when the term was first used) simply became the Bishop of Rome. We do not know much of his pontificate. Most likely due to the office, he held Sylvester took part in the grand celebrations of the consecration of imperial foundations such as: the Basilica on the Lateran, the San Giovanni Baptistery, as well as the Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano. In the year 325 in Nicaea, in present-day Turkey the I Council took place, to which the pope sent his representatives – Vitus and Vincentius. We do not know what prevented Sylvester himself from going to this Christian gathering which was a momentous occasion for the entire world. It was there that the credo was formulated and there the dogma on the divinity of the Son and his relationship to the Father was proclaimed. This council, as well as the remaining ones, was convened and chaired by Constantine, who strove to limit religious conflicts, which were growing between representatives of various branches of Christianity. This “bishop of bishops” as he called himself, desired for his empire, of which he was the religious supervisor, meaning guardian of all religions (Pontifex Maximus), a Church which was uniform and strong. In the face of such an active and charismatic ruler, Sylvester played second fiddle. During  more than twenty years of being in office, he really did nothing of note. He did not even baptize Emperor Constantine, which is what the Church willingly (but falsely) emphasized for centuries – in reality, the emperor was baptized upon his deathbed and not at the hands of Sylvester (who had died two years prior), but Eusebius of Nicomedia.



Sylvester died on 31 December 335 and was buried in the Catacombs of St. Priscilla at the Roman via Salaria. And there he laid in peace for the next several centuries, until the VIII century when his remains were transported to a Roman church named after him – the San Silvestro in Capite. At that time the Church already harbored ambitions to not only rule over the spiritual sphere but was rapidly becoming an important political player in the international arena. A new founding legend had to be established to suit this new role, and bishop Sylvester was the perfect fit here. His merits were highlighted and expanded, by simply spreading lies. He was shown to be a charismatic leader, while Emperor Constantine as the result of this hoax was portrayed as someone who was lost, headstrong, and unpredictable, but most importantly – completely subordinate to the Bishop of Rome. In order to better understand this political balancing act, we must recall a document that was created in the middle of the VIII century – the so-called Donation of Constantine, from which we can learn that Sylvester baptized Constantine (in exchange for a miraculous recovery) and then the pope was granted rights to Rome and lands of the Western Empire, but most importantly the acknowledgment of the supremacy of papal authority over imperial. Why was this done? The popes who were in office in the VIII century desired political independence from the ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire at the same time questioning his rights to Italian territories. This document served to guarantee the rights of popes to not only land but also to maintain both spiritual and political control over the area. In time, in 1440 to be exact, the donation was shown to be a hoax, but the Church did not admit it until the XIX century.

In 813 Sylvester became a saint. Until that time sainthood was reserved for martyrs, yet Sylvester had died a wealthy man, which was ensured by Emperor Constantine. What exactly did the bishop do to attain such a status? He was made the hero of two willingly disseminated legends, which would prove his extraordinary and miraculous powers. The arena of the first miracle in which Sylvester participated was the Forum Romanum. There he apparently defeated a dragon (serpent) which no longer being fed by the pagan Vestas began devouring Roman residents. The helpless emperor turned to Sylvester for aid. The pope asked the saints Peter and Paul for advice and with the help of the faithful slew the reptile, holding a crucifix in his hand. Seeing this miracle, pagans willingly converted to Christianity. The dragon was buried under the walls of the nearby pagan temple, while in the place of the dragon's cave the Church of San Silvestre was erected (later referred to as the Santa Maria Liberatrice). It stood until the end of the XIX century when during archeological works it was finally taken down and demolished.



Over the centuries, no less than seven churches devoted to Sylvester were built in Rome. Some of them disappeared, others changed their patrons. A pilgrimage to the locations connected with the saint makes us aware of the extent to which the historical policy of the Church skewed our perception, creating parallel history – one not based on any kind of historical facts.
In order to view more of Sylvester's miracles, we must make our way to the Church of Santi Quattro Coronati, where the Oratory of San Silvestro is found – a true pearl of medieval art. On the walls of this extraordinary structure, the miraculous acts of Sylvester are displayed, clearly underlining the supreme role of the head of the Church in relation to the secular emperor. As we can see, thanks to the help of the saints Peter and Paul, Sylvester cured the emperor. Here we will also see him with the mother of Constantine, Helena, among rabbis in Jerusalem. In a theological dispute the pope, using the force of his religious arguments defeats no less than eleven Jewish wise men. The twelfth rabbi, who was able to kill a bull by simply calling upon the name of Yahweh is defeated as Sylvester brings the animal back to life, convincing his adversary of the superiority of Christianity. Perhaps that is why Sylvester is not only the patron saint of the new year but also domestic animals.

Perhaps the greatest paean of the pope is the frescoes in the Apostolic Palace on the Vatican, in a room known as the Hall of Constantine, completed around the year 1524, by the students of Raphael. Based on its name one could assume that the frescoes were devoted to the first Christian ruler, thanks to whom the religion began its triumphant march. However, upon taking a closer look at the paintings, we can notice that they praise the glory of the papacy, in which
Constantine plays a purely instrumental role. Sylvester baptizes the emperor and proudly sits upon the throne, surrounded by his notables, while the emperor is kneeling at his feet, handing the pope a golden figurine of Roma (the personification of the city itself). Two lies, which were willingly repeated throughout the centuries are shown here with the splendor appropriate for the papacy of the Renaissance which still competed with the secular authorities, and continually reminded itself and the entire world about its significant position, which it held thanks to its spiritual and political superiority. It should be mentioned, that even then – for at least eighty years – the Church knew that the events are a hoax and had never taken place, but still it decided to immortalize them in such a way.



In the next century, Sylvester was still being praised. And thus in the aforementioned Church of San Silvestro in Capite (Piazza San Silvestro), in whose sacristy there is a reliquary with the head of the patron saint, on the vault of the nave, we can see a seventeenth-century fresco depicting the Glory of St. John the Baptist and (seemingly equal in status) Sylvester, painted by the skilled decorator of Roman churches – Giacinto Brandini. In the apse of the church, on the other hand, there is a scene of the (fabricated) baptism of Emperor Constantine given to him by Sylvester; it was painted by Ludovico Gimigniani. Immediately adjacent we will notice the messengers of Emperor Constantine, begging the pope for help (a painting of an unknown painter from among the followers of Caravaggio). The aforementioned legendary actions of Sylvester are also depicted by the paintings in one of the chapels of another church devoted to him, the San Silvestro al Quirinale (via XXIV Maggio).
Under the floor of the present-day Church of Santi Martino e Silvestro there is a mysterious room, which for a long time was believed to be a meeting place for Christians in the III century (titulus Equitii). According to a legend it was founded by Sylvester and he also resided within, before moving to the bishop’s palace on the Lateran. Today historians agree, that this room was used for something completely different. Above, in the left nave of the church, we will also discover an interesting painting from 1640 by Galeazzo Leoncini, showing the synod called by Pope Sylvester in this very church, which was to confirm the resolutions of the Council of Nicaea. It was to be a testimony of the significant role of the pope, who was not in attendance in Nicaea, but who called its participants to Rome.

This is yet another hoax since such a council had never taken place. In the arch of the apse of the main altar, we will once again see the figure of Sylvester (on the left); he will once again appear on the façade of the church, this time in the shape of a statue completed in 1635 by Stefano Castelli.
And so Bishop Sylvester had for centuries been used by the Church in the ideological struggle for political power, becoming the image of the perfect successor upon St. Peter's throne. Today, when the Church no longer feels politically threatened, while historical facts cannot be questioned, there is not much that can be said about him – because, who is Sylvester bereft of the "ideological robes", which he had been wearing for centuries?