Portraiture and Iconography of Constantine


Up to Imperial Portraits

Constantine the Great was

Preceded by Constantius and Maxentius

Succeeded by (and father of) Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius II

  Photos by Bill Storage and Laura Maish
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  Photos 1 though 5 are of the remnants, now in the Capitoline Museum (Museo del Palazzo Conservatori), of a colossal statue of Constantine from the Basilica Nuovo (Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius). These marble remains of a statue that was originally Maxentius and later recarved as Constantine are about five times life-size. The head is heavily stylized and abstract, while the body parts are highly naturalistic (note veins in forearm and foot). This difference has led some scholars to conclude that the original statue may date to the time of Trajan, then getting a new head of Maxentius in the early 4th century, which was subsequently recarved as Constantine after Constantine's famous defeat of Maxentius in the battle of Mylvian Bridge. It is unlikely that an accurate history of the statue can be known. The complexity of its history is shown by the fact that two right hands (photo 5) have been discovered near the basilica.

Photos 7 and 8 show the colossal bronze head, hand, and globe now in the Sala dei Bronzi of the Museo Capitolino in Rome. Its identity is debated although most seem to agree on Constantine, as opposed to the next most likely candidate, his son, Constantius II. The asymetric, hooked nose is similar to that of the colossal marble head, but the hair pattern in different from that of other portraits agreed to be Constantine, where his thick comma-shaped locks curve toward the center of his forehead.

The best example of Constantinian iconography and his reuse of earlier imperial art is the Arch of Constantine in Rome. Photo 9 shows two panels for the attic of this arch, both containing standing portraits of Marcus Aurelius, whose head has been replaced by that of Constantine. Photo 10 is a small segment of the frieze that runs around the arch, showing Constantine (head missing) facing directly forward on a high throne, imagery not present in earlier imperial iconography. The influence of this image on Christian iconography is heavily debated. About 100 photos of Constantinian propaganda art can be found on our page discussing the Arch of Constantine.

In July 2005 during excavations of Trajan's Forum, a two-foot tall head of Carrara marble, probably of Constantine (photo 11), was discovered in a sewer. This find would seem to indicate that late antique portraits were displayed in Trajan's Forum along with those from the era of Trajan.

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Copyright 2007 Bill Storage and Laura Maish. Updated 6/27/2007