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Post-Constantinian Conception of Christ

Text and Image

Apse Mosaic from the Church of Santa Pudenziana, in Rome, late 4th century.

Consider the meaning of the above mosaic in relationship to our discussion of the function of the apse in the basilican architecture. Compare the mosaic to the following quotation from the writings of the Early Christian theologian, St. John Chrysostom:

"You will see the king, seated on the throne of that unutterable glory, together with the angels and archangels standing beside him, as well as the countless legions of the ranks of the saints. This is how the Holy City appears.... In this city is towering the wonderful and glorious sign of victory, the cross, the victory booty of Christ, the first fruit of our human kind, the spoils of war of our king."

Missorium of Theodosius, 388

Detail of mosaic of Christ from the Archepiscopal Palace in Ravenna


The following Hymn was written by Prudentius, a Spaniard, in a poetic style based on the epic style of Virgil. Review the imagery in this text and see the parallels to what we have seen in post-Constantinian Christian architecture and figurative arts.

Prudentius, "Hymn for All Hours," Cathemerinon IX (translation from the Loeb Classic series volume of texts by Prudentius)

Let me chant in sacred numbers, as I strike each sounding string,
Chant in sweet, melodious anthems, glorious deeds of Christ our King:
He, my Muse, shall be thy story: with His praise my lyre shall ring.

When the king in priestly raiment sang the Christ that was to be,
Voice and lute and clashing cymbal joined in joyous harmony,
While the Spirit, heaven-descended, touched his lips to prophecy....

Of the Father's heart begotten, ere the world from chaos rose,
He is Alpha; from that Fountain all that is and hath been flows:
He is Omega, of all things yet to come the mystic Close.

By His word was all create; He commands and lo! 'tis done;
Earth and sky and boundless ocean, universe of three in one,
All that sees the moon's soft radiance, all that breathes beneath the sun....

But, while God with golden glory floods the murky realms of night,
And upon the startled shadows dawns a day serene and bright,
In the darkened vault of heaven stars forlorn refuse their light.

For the sun in garb of mourning veiled his radiant orb and passed
From his flaming path in sorrow, hiding till mankind aghast
Deemed that o'er a world of chaos Night's eternal pall was cast.

Now, my soul, in liquid measures let the sounding numbers flow;


Sing the trophy of His passion, sing the Cross triumphant now;
Sing the ensign of Christ's glory, marked on every faithful brow.

Ah! How wondrous was the fountain flowing from His pierced side,
Whence the blood and water mingled in a strange and sacred tide--
Water, sign of mystic cleansing; blood, the martyr's crown of pride.

In that hour the ancient Serpent saw the holy Victim slain,
Saw, and shed his hate envenomed, all his malice spent in vain;
See! The hissing neck is broken as he writhes in sullen pain.

Christ, our Captain, for a season deigned to dwell in Death's domain,
That the dead, long time imprisoned, might return to life again,
Breaking by His great example ancient sins' enthralling chain....

Then, mankind to life restoring, Death downtrodden 'neath His feet,
Lo! The Victor mounts triumphant to the Father's judgment-seat,
Bringing back to heaven the glory by His passion made complete.

Hail! Thou Judge of souls departed: hail! Of all the living King!
On the Father's right hand throned, through His courts Thy praises ring,
Till at last for all offences righteous judgment Thou shalt bring....

Psalm 90: 13: Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon.

Compare this image of Christ to the image of the Emperor Valens on a coin from 364-7:


Junius Bassus Sarcophagus (Junius Bassus was a Roman Prefect who died in 359)

Lower register: Entry into Jerusalem.

Christ with Peter and Paul, "traditio legis"

"Traditio Legis" Sarcophagus, middle of the 4th century, Vatican

Detail of the Augustus of Primaporta showing the Caelus figure at the top of the cuirass.



"Child's Sarcophagus" , 2nd half of the 4th century, Constantinople.


Nike of Samothrace, Greek Hellenistic, c. 190 BCE.


Venantius Fortunatus in 569 wrote the hymn Vexilla regis prodeunt:

The banners of the king issue forth,
the mystery of the cross does gleam,
where the creator of flesh, in the flesh,
by the cross-bar [of the crucifying cross] is hung.

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