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The Vision of Constantine

The narrative passes over the area where, in Piero’s time, the high altar would have been, up against the wall under a single-light window. Suspended from the vault above, there was -- and is again today -- a huge wooden crucifix with St. Francis in adoration at the feet of Christ. [The crucifix is not represented in the model.] The crucifix and Eucharistic sacrament performed at the altar, in the context of the fresco cycle, would represent the period of the life and death of Christ and the establishment of the Church. The narrative then continues in the fourth century, just before the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the Roman state religion (A.D. 323).

Constantine Asleep in his Military Tent

Constantine and his rival Maxentius were vying for the position of emperor of Rome, and about to do battle at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber river in Rome. The night before the battle, just before the dawn, Constantine lies in bed guarded by a halberdier and a sentry holding a mace who blocks entry into the tent. From the star-studded heavens above, an angel streaks down, extending toward the sleeping general a tiny, glowing [formerly gold] cross, the divine illumination of which lights up the darkness. Although his eyes are closed, Constantine sees what we see but not yet understanding its meaning. His attendant, sitting in a melancholy pose, seems to comprehend. Constantine lies at the foot of the tent pole like a figure of Adam at the foot of the Cross. With this motif, Piero shows the death of paganism at the birth of Christianity.

The Night Sky

Above the peaked tents a sky full of stars appears. A number of constellations has been recognized, including Cassiopeia, Draco, and, most clearly, the Little Dipper (Ursus minor). This configuration is close to what would have actually been visible in the latitude of Rome on the autumnal night before the battle (Oct. 28, 312). The celestial image, however, is precisely reversed, as though, in true visionary fashion, it is seen from outside the celestial sphere, the point of view of the angel, or, indeed, of God.