Rome, S Costanza

Era 4AD
Location Via Nomentana, 349, 00198 Roma RM, Italy

Sta Costanza is usually identified as the mausoleum of Constantina, daughter of Constantine the Great, who died in 354. Her sister, Helena, wife of the Emperor Julian, was also buried here. The mausoleum is a fourth-century building, though precisely to when in the fourth century it dates is uncertain, and the mosaics are widely but not universally accepted as contemporary. The mausoleum may have been Constantina’s commission before her death; it may have been completed later by her brother, Constantine’s successor, the Emperor Constantius II. As an imperial mausoleum, it follows the pattern of third and fourth century mausolea, even down to its plan as a domed circular building, a rotunda. What is different about it is that, as a Christian mausoleum, it formed part of a sacred complex: it was originally attached to a basilica church dedicated to St Agnes which is now in ruins. Further, there was an innovative development in its plan: the vaulted ambulatory running around the central space is not blocked off from that space by solid walls but joined to it by a colonnade. In other words, the two spaces, central rotunda and ambulatory, interpenetrate, and as a result, the central space is flooded with light whilst the ambulatory is contrastingly darker.

The central dome originally had mosaics, though these were removed in the 1620s and are recorded in sketches. Around the base was a river scene of putti fishing from boats, a very typical floor mosaic motif (another example comes from Aquileia), whilst above this, caryatid-like figures divided the dome into twelve segments with two horizontal zones. The lower appears to have had scenes from the Old Testament, the upper scenes from the New. Mosaics survive in the vaults and two niches on a cross-axis. The vaults look almost as if they have been carpeted with mosaic. On a white stone background, in a series of distinct sections, curling vine scrolls are filled with putti harvesting grapes and pressing them into wine; elsewhere, dolphins attack octopi; birds, plants, fruits, flowers and silver vessels are scattered across a plain white background; roundels with busts and figures appear amidst floral patterns; single cavorting cupids and psyches are set among animals and birds; geometric designs of lozenges, octagons and crosses occupy neat panels. These are motifs and patterns that echo designs from floor mosaics across the Roman Empire. The formal roundels and geometric designs, and the vine scrolling, are a staple on floors; the more scattered scenes evoke the illusionistic ‘unswept floor’ type of design, seen in Roman (Pompeian) and North African floors; and the compartmentalising of elements of the design into panels is a standard organisational device for floor mosaic. In addition, like floor mosaics, these mosaics are largely made of stone, with glass, including gold glass, used sparingly as highlights, bringing out the details of vessels and fruits for example. Two panels in the vaults of the ambulatory depict putti harvesting and pressing grapes. Mixed in among them is the bust of a woman (?Constantina?)

The images in the two surviving conches of the niches of the cross-axis portray Christian figural scenes: in one, a bearded toga-clad Christ or perhaps God seated on a globe hands something to an beardless man in a toga (perhaps the giving of the Old Testament Law to Moses or the giving of keys or a codex - the object is not clear - to St Peter); in the other, a beardless youthful Christ hands a scroll to a bearded man whilst a beardless man stands by (the so-called Traditio Legis, the giving of the New Testament Law by Christ to Peter and Paul).


S Costanza sets some very interesting mosaic questions: the relationship of wall to floor mosaics, why mosaic was used on walls at all; why there were mosaics in Rome (as opposed to elsewhere) and the relationship that mosaic as a medium had with both Christianity and imperial power. The mosaics of the mausoleum have been used to suggest that wall and vault mosaics were invented in the early fourth century and that mosaic-making was influenced by both wall painting and floor mosaics. But the decoration of Constantina’s mausoleum is not surprising. It forms a part of the essential syncretism or assimilation of artistic vocabulary of fourth-century Christian imagery, which borrowed widely, inevitably and seemingly uncontroversially from the traditional elements of Roman art. Iconographically, the motifs are standard examples of Roman funerary iconography, with a theme of salvation both ‘pagan’ and ‘Christian’ found in the catacombs and on sarcophagi and in secular and Christian art alike. The vintaging putti, incidentally, also feature on Constantina’s porphyry sarcophagus (now in the Vatican Museum).

select image to view full-screen