Santa Costanza in Rome

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Santa Costanza is a 4th century church in Rome, Italy, on the Via Nomentana, which runs north-east out of the city, still under its ancient name. According to the traditional view, it was built under Constantine I as a mausoleum for his daughter Constantina (also known as Constantia or Costanza) who died in 354 AD. His other daughter Helena, wife of Julian, who died in 360 AD, was also buried here. In the early Middle Ages it was dedicated as a church to Santa Costanza (Saint Constance).

The fabric of Santa Costanza survives in essentially its original form. What were probably magnificent decoratively coloured stone panels on the walls have gone, no doubt to decorate later buildings, and a few of the mosaics have had some minor damage and incorrect restoration but for the most part it stands in excellent condition as a prime example of early Christian art and architecture. It was built next to, and in connection with, the 4th century basilica of Santa Agnese or Saint Agnes, to which it was attached mid-way along the liturgical north side. Both buildings were constructed over the earlier catacombs where Saint Agnes was buried. Only a long section of the main outer wall of the basilica survives, from the north side and the apse at the eastern end. In the 7th century the present church of Sant'Agnese fuori le mura was built a few metres away, as the Constantinian basilica had decayed and was considered too large to refurbish. One key component which is missing from Santa Costanza is the art of the central dome. But in the sixteenth-century, drawings were taken of this central dome so the artwork can be reconstructed and examined. One key component which is not missing, and is extremely valuable to both the Art and History disciplines, is the large porphyry sarcophagus of Constantina, which was moved in the Renaissance to the Vatican Museums, where it is on display. and was popular for mausoleums and places of baptisms at this time.Other roman churches built in a similar fashion and for a similar purpose include The cathedral of Split, built for Diocletian, and the church of St. George in Salonkia built for Galerius. This is especially true of the floor mosaics which were similar in style to those in the ambulatory, filled with cupids, birds, and Bacchus and grapevines. This shows the merging of pagan and Christian values in Rome. These mosaics probably represent the sort of decoration found in the Imperial palaces of the period.

The central dome

Despite the fact that the artwork of the central dome no longer exists, a picture of it can still be reconstructed. Sometime between 1538 and 1540, Francesco d'Ollanda made water-color copies of the mosaics in the central dome. From these several Christian images appear including Susanna and the Elders, Tobias, the sacrifice of Cain and Abel,, the sacrifice of Elias on Mount Carmel, possibly Lot receiving the angels, Moses striking the rock for water, and possibly even Noah building the ark. The upper row of mosaics is thought to be scenes from the New Testament since it has the Miracle of the Centurion. These mosaics have caryatids and acanthus-scrolls and a calendar of saints in the upper row. The scene presents a beautiful image of nature and plenty complete with grape vines, sheep and birds. Aside from the natural scene, there are also four portraits including Constantia herself, "on the lid, four graceful portrait heads, one apparently that of Constantina, look calmly out over this assurance that the best is yet to be".<ref name="RobertMilburn" /> The imagery presented of wine and nature are not inherently Christian but could be perceived as such considering the use of wine in the Eucharist. Or they could be perceived as a connection to Bacchus, the God of Wine.<ref name="JohnLowden" /> This style of sarcophagus would cease to be used in Rome by the end of the fourth century, and this sarcophagus of Constantia is a prime example of this ancient art.<ref name="RobertMilburn" />

The sarcophagus is massive with the chest measuring 128 cm or 4 ft 2 in high, 233 cm or 7 ft 7 in long, and 157 cm or 5 ft 1 in wide.<ref name="JohnLowden" /> It is made of porphyry, a hard purple stone. This purple color is a direct connection to royalty and signifies that royalty is entombed within. This stone was reserved by the Romans for use only by the imperial family. It was quarried from only one place, Mons Porphyriticus (Coptos, Egypt), making it even more exclusive.<ref name="JohnBeckwith" /> It appears, but can not be certain, that the sarcophagus of Constantina is a copy of that of Constantine I, her father, which is now lost. A piece of what is believed to be his sarcophagus is similar in style and of the same material. A relica in (?) wood has been placed in the church, though to one side; what would presumably have been its original position in the centre of the church is now occupied by the altar.

"The Temple of Bacchus"

In the Seventeenth Century, the Santa Costanza Church was known popularly as "the Temple of Bacchus". Members of the Bentvueghels - a society of mostly Dutch and Flemish artists active in Rome at the time - used to hold rowdy processions to the church and make libations to Bacchus before the porphyry sarcophagus of Constantina (now in the Vatican Museums), which was considered to be his tomb because of its Bacchic motifs. A list of its members may still be seen in one of this church's side chapels. This practice was finally banned by Pope Clement XI in 1720.

See also

  • Architecture of ancient Rome
  • Early Christian art and architecture


  • Webb, Matilda. The churches and catacombs of early Christian Rome: a comprehensive guide, google books

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