Santa Costanza

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Piranesi's etching of the elevations of the site

Santa Costanza is a 4th-century church in Rome, Italy, on the Via Nomentana, which runs north-east out of the city. 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 Middle Ages it was dedicated as a church to Santa Costanza (Saint Constance), who was regarded as a saint. It was built next to, and in connection with, the 4th century Basilica of Santa Agnese (Saint Agnes).<ref name=roth>Template:Cite book</ref> Both buildings were constructed over the earlier catacombs in which Saint Agnes is believed to be buried.

The mausoleum is of circular form with an ambulatory surrounding a central dome. The fabric of Santa Costanza survives in essentially its original form. Despite the loss of the coloured stone veneers of the walls, some damage to the mosaics and incorrect restoration, the building stands in excellent condition as a prime example of Early Christian art and architecture. The vaults of the apses and ambulatory display well pres erved examples of Late Roman mosaics. A key component which is missing from the decorative scheme is the mosaic of the central dome. In the sixteenth-century, watercolours were made of this central dome so the pictorial scheme can be hypothetically reconstructed.<ref name="JohnLowden">John Lowden, Early Christian & Byzantine Art (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1997), 43.</ref> The large porphyry sarcophagus of Constantina, has survived intact, and is now in the Vatican Museum. an object of great significance to the study of the art of Late Antiquity.<ref name="JohnLowden" />

Recent excavations suggest that this was in fact the second Christian building on the site, and may be some decades later than traditionally thought, and built as a mausoleum for Constantina's sister Helena in the reign of her husband Julian the Apostate. The larger of the two porphyry sarcophagi there would belong to Helena, and the smaller to Constantina, the opposite of what has been traditionally thought. The earlier triconch apsed building of the 330s was probably indeed built for Constantina, but she later had to take second place to her sister; as Constantina's fame as a saintly figure continued in the Middle Ages their roles became reversed in the popular mind.


Piranesi's 18th-century reconstruction of the original plan of the funerary hall and two mausolea, with Santa Costanza at top (modern views do not support the lower one). The ground slopes away sharply on the right, and there are large buttresses, which survive. Sant'Agnese fuori le mura would be outside the image below the bottom left corner.


Santa Costanza is located a minute's walk to the side of the Via Nomentana, a short way outside the ancient walls of Rome. The road follows the ancient Roman route which runs north-east from Rome to Nomentum or Mentana. The area was an Imperial family estate, and the bodies of the sisters were both brought considerable distances to be buried there: Ammianus records that Constantina's body was brought back from Bithynia, and Helena's from Gaul (History XIV: 11, 6).

The mausoleum was built over a catacomb that contains the relics of Saint Agnes, who was martyred as a thirteen year old, and was attached to which it was attached to the ancient basilica of Saint Agnese mid-way along the liturgical north side.<ref name=roth/> The basilica was originally a "funerary hall" rather than a church in the modern sense. Later legend considerably elaborated Constantina's devotion to Saint Agnes, but it now cannot be determined if this was a factor in the choice of location, although in general terms early Christians believed that their souls benefited from being buried close to martyrs, which was almost certainly a major attraction of the funerary hall to those who paid to be buried in it. Attaching an important mausoleum as an annex to a church was a common practice in Rome and can be seen the cases of other Roman churches such as the Mausoleum of Helena (Constantine's mother, not his daughter), which was attached to the basilica of Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros, now a ruin.

File:SantAgnese - basilica costantiniana 00271.JPG
View into the apse of the ruined basilica, from in front of Santa Costanza

Of the original Basilica of St Agnese, only about a third of the main outer wall survives, from the north side and the apse at the eastern end, but at less than the original height. By the 7th-century the basilica had fallen into ruins and was too large to be refurbished, and the current much smaller Basilica of Sant'Agnese fuori le mura was built to replace it, a few metres away.


It was traditionally thought that construction began during the reign of Emperor Constantine I or shortly after, as an early history, the Liber Pontificalis, records that Pope Silvester I (d. 335) baptized Constantina and her paternal aunt in a baptistry built by Constantine there at the same time as the funerary hall. This was assumed to be the structure that survives. But excavations in 1992 discovered an earlier building beneath, and the existing building is now dated to it around 350 AD, in the reign of Helena's husband, the Emperor Julian. Constantina had died in 354, and her sarcophagus was perhaps originally placed in the earlier building.

The structure of Santa Costanza reflects its original function as the mausoleum of one or both Constantine's two daughters, Constantia and Helena, rather than as the church it became much later. The centralized design put "direct physical emphasis on the person or place to be honored"<ref name="MichaelGough">Michael Gough, The Origins of Christian Art (New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1973), 58.</ref> and was popular for mausoleums and places of baptisms at this time. Other early Christian buildings with a similar origin and a circular plan include Split Cathedral, built within Diocletian's Palace as his mausoleum, and the Rotunda of Galerius (now the Church of St. George]] in Thessaloniki built as a mausoleum for Galerius.<ref name="MichaelGough" />

The huge funerary hall or Constantinian basilica gradually fell out of use and into ruins, with the base of the wall now surviving for about a third of the original circuit of exterior walls, but Santa Costanza has survived all but intact. It is documented that Pope Nicholas I celebrated mass there in 865, the first time that "Santa Costanza" is recorded as its name, but its consecration as a church was not until 1254, by Pope Alexander IV, who had what were believed to be the remains of Constantia removed from the larger sarcophagus and placed under a central altar.



Santa Costanza is a circular, centralized structure, with a circular ambulatory ringing a high central space topped by a shallow dome, which is raised on a round drum, as can be seen from the exterior. It is built of brick-faced concrete and its structure is basically two rings supported by columns placed around a vertical central axis. The upper ring sits on the columns while the "lower ring encloses a circular ambulatory whose space flows between the columns into the axial cylinder." This design essentially creates two spaces or two worlds, that of the ambulatory and that of the upper dome. The screens of the ambulatory and inner ring create a dark contrast to the bright upper space of the dome. This contrast of light can be seen in the picture of the main interior. The single door, flanked by two arched niches, would originally have been an internal arch or doorway leading straight into the Constaninian basilica or funerary hall, half-way along its length. There is a short vestibule inside the door, opening to the ambulatory.

An arched arcade with twelve pairs of granite columns decorated with composite capitals supports the drum below the dome, and separates the area of the ambulatory beyond, which is much darker, as light from twelve windows in the clerestory does not reach this area as well. In contrast the central area is well-lit, creating interplay between dark and light in the interior.

The number of arches, pairs of columns and windows could be a reference to the Twelve Apostles. Opposite the entrance in this central space there is "a kind of baldacchino...rises above a porphyry plaque which, below the middle arch of the center room, once seems to have carried the princess's sarcophagus". This is where the sarcophagus of Constantina, or perhaps the second one, would have rested. The ambulatory is barrel-vaulted and is 22.5 meters or 74 feet in diameter.<ref name="JohnLowden" /> The ambulatory has most of the surviving mosaics in the church. Larger arches mark the cardinal points in the mausoleum. The walls were probably covered in slabs of colourful marble, as was usual in imperial buildings. Santa Costanza was also to some extent a new type of building. It was different from earlier styles in that the roof, which would previously have been typically simply done with flat and made with wood, was instead designed as a dome and vault.


The mosaics of the ambulatory vault and the paired columns


The mosaics of Santa Costanza are important examples of Early Christian art, and even rarer examples of secular palace ceiling mosaics. The apses, central dome, and ambulatory all had mosaic decoration, though that in the dome no longer survives.

Mosaics in the apses

In the ambulatory wall there are two shallow apses, each with a mosaic showing Christ as the Pantocrator, the earliest surviving examples of this depiction; they probably date to the 5th or 7th century, though there has been much discussion of this. Like many mosaics of the period, both have suffered from restoration and both show elements of Roman imperial imagery, representing early examples of the conflation of this with Christian art. A mosaic with two women wearing white, reported as being behind the sarcophagus in the Renaissance, has now gone and was never drawn.

One of the apses shows a traditio legis: Christ is shown with Saints Peter and Paul giving Peter the scroll representing law, with the inscription, "DOMINUS LEGEM DAT," or "The Lord is giving the Law." A few sheep represent his role as shepherd governing and leading his flock. Christ is clothed in golden robes, suggesting his power and supremacy. He is shown rising above paradise, which further shows his dominance over both heaven and earth.

In the second apse, Christ appears somewhat more simply but still as supremely powerful. His robes are not quite as rich as in the other apse, but still suggest power. He wears a simple tunic but it is purple and gold. This suggests not only holy power, but human power given that purple is the color of royalty and the gold stripes suggestion a connection to the roman emperors. Peter also approaches Christ in supplication, like one would approach the Emperor. This is one of the first examples in Christian art of Christ being portrayed in the same way as the emperor or royalty. It is a concept that would later be prevalent in Christian art and architecture. In this apse Christ is not just portrayed as royalty but as the ruler of the world, of all existence. He sits atop a blue sphere, a clear symbol for the world or universe. From this perch he hands keys to Peter. This is a clear sign of Christ, and the power of heaven, giving authority and holy power to man. It is also important to note that Peter was Rome's first bishop so this meant Roman authority was sanctioned by God. This concept and picture of Christ as the almighty ruler and creator of the world would be the norm in the artwork of later churches, but it first appears here at Santa Costanza.

Mosaics in the ambulatory

The 4th-century mosaics on the ambulatory vault are contemporary with the building, and show a stark contrast to those in the apses, being essentially secular, with panels containing geometric patterns, small heads or figures within compartmented frames, birds with branches of foliage, vases and other objects, and vine patterns with cherubs harvesting and wine-making. This last type of scene also appears on Constantina's sarcophagus, as it does on the ends of the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus. While the mosaics of the apses have very clear Christian imagery, those in the ambulatory are much more secular and could be considered Dionysiac with their images of grapes, fruit, birds, and mythological figures.<ref name="JohnBeckwith">John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970), 12.</ref> 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, and in general have needed little restoration.

Central dome

The mosaics of the central dome no longer exist, but a picture of them can still be reconstructed as between 1538 and 1540 Francesco d'Ollanda made watercolour copies of what then survived. In these several biblical scenes appear, resembling catacomb paintings from the 3rd century, 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, largely missing by the 16th century, is thought to have had 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.<ref name="JohnBeckwith" /> This, in conjunction with the two apses is where the majority of Christian imagery occurs.


thumb, originally stood in the mausoleum]] Two large porphyry sarcophagi from the church are now in the Vatican; the larger and more famous (illustrated) in the Vatican Museums, where it was moved during the late 18th century and is on display.<ref name="JohnLowden" />and the smaller in St Peter's itself (left transept), moved there in 1606. It is now thought that the larger sarcophagus traditionally related to Constantina may in fact have housed her sister Helena, and the less spectacular one, also removed to the Vatican, was actually Constantina's.

Constantina's sarcophagus has complex symbolic designs in relief: "the surface is dominated by an intricate pattern of stylized vine-stems into which are fitted cherubs...with this scene of Dionysiac exuberance, and the hope of future blessedness which it implies, two peacocks, birds of immorality, are completely in accord".<ref name="RobertMilburn">Robert Milburn, Early Christian Art and Architecture (England: Scolar Press, 1988), 77.</ref> The scene presents an image of nature and plenty complete with grape vines, sheep and birds. The putti are framed in acanthus scrolls, above which there are several images of masks. 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 the style.<ref name="RobertMilburn" />

The sarcophagus is massive with the chest measuring 128 cm or 4 ft 2Template:Frac in high, 233 cm or 7 ft 7Template:Frac in long, and 157 cm or 5 ft 1Template:Frac in wide.<ref name="JohnLowden" /> It is made of porphyry, a hard purple stone, reserved by the Romans for use only by the imperial family, whose colour purple was. 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 cast replica has been placed in the church, though in the ambulatory; presumably its original position was in the centre of the church, now occupied by the altar. There is another in the Museum of Roman Civilization in the city.

See also

  • Architecture of ancient Rome
  • Early Christian sarcophagi
  • Early Christian art and architecture




  • Beckwith, John. Early Christian and Byzantine Art, Penguin Books, 1970
  • Krautheimer, Richard. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, Penguin Books, 1965
  • Lowden, John. Early Christian and Byzantine Art, Phaidon Press Limited, 1997
  • Milburn, Robert. Early Christian Art and Architecture, University of California Press, 1988.
  • Webb, Matilda. The churches and catacombs of early Christian Rome: a comprehensive guide, google books

Further reading

External links