Sunday, December 31, 2023

The Legend of Pope St Silvester I

The Caelian hill in Rome is the site of a very ancient basilica dedicated to the Four Crowned Martyrs; within the complex that surrounds it is preserved an extraordinary gem of medieval art, a chapel dedicated to Pope St Silvester I (314-35), whose feast has been kept on this day since the fourth century. (All images from the relevant page of Wikimedia Commons, by Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0.)
This chapel was built in 1246, for a very particular purpose determined by the proximity of the Four Crowned Martyrs to the Pope’s cathedral, St John in the Lateran, where Papal elections were traditionally held in the Middle Ages. In the 12th century, the Church was very much caught up in the Investiture Controversy, the struggle to free itself from the control of the secular power, and particularly, of the German Holy Roman Emperors; and for most of the century, there was an antipope who took the Emperors’ side. A crucial figure in this long controversy, Pope Alexander III (1159-81), was, like Silvester I, one of the longest reigning Popes of all time, but was unable for most of his reign to enter Rome, which was held by the antipopes with the Emperor’s support. After an agreement was reached between the two sides towards the end of Alexander’s reign, and solidified by the Third General Council of the Lateran in 1179, the conflict was most unhappily renewed in the first part of the 13th century under the Emperor Frederick II.

The chapel of St Silvester was therefore built so that, if the Lateran itself should be occupied by the Emperor, the cardinals would be able to barricade themselves within the fortress-like complex around the basilica of the Four Crowned Martyrs a short distance away, and elect a Pope without outside interference. The program of the frescoes which decorate its walls is very much intended to speak to this potential role of the chapel as the site of a Papal election, and to remind the cardinals that the candidate they should be supporting is the one who will defend the liberty of the Church, which the civil power has no right to usurp. (In the end, however, the chapel was never used for this purpose.)
The cycle begins on the back wall, with the first of several episodes from the life of Constantine, whom the medieval Papacy (mostly with good reason) held up as an ideal emperor because he gave the Church freedom and a great deal of material support, but largely left it alone to manage its own internal affairs. According to the common legend, he suffered from leprosy, which his doctors told him could only be cured by bathing in the blood of young children. (Ancient Roman medical practice had much to do with what anthropologists call sympathetic magic, and the idea that a doctor in antiquity might prescribe such an awful remedy is not per se absurd.) Notice how the faces in the crowd of mothers are all basically the same, and there is only a hint of using their expression to convey their distress at the proposed massacre. Artworks of this kind became very unfashionable in the Renaissance, which sought to differentiate faces in groups more realistically, and use facial expressions to convey emotion.
Constantine (who, like all good monarchs, sleeps in full regalia and wearing a crown), has a dream in which the Apostles Peter and Paul appear to him, and tell him not to kill the children, but rather to seek out the Christian bishop of Rome, who will cure him. (Notice that the decorative pattern on Constantine’s robe passes through the space delineated by it without conforming to the folds of the cloth, another classic feature of medieval art on which the Renaissance will seek to improve.)

Constantine’s emissaries (who are taller than their horses) ride out to seek Pope Silvester...

and find him (after turning the corner of the wall) on Mt Soracte to the north of Rome, hiding with other members of the clergy from the ongoing persecution of the Church. (Note the sideways treetop in the background.)

Pope Silvester meets the Emperor and shows him an image of Ss Peter and Paul, whom Constantine recognizes as the men who had appeared to him in his dream. He therefore accepts the truth of the vision...

and agrees to be baptized, at which his leprosy disappears. (For want of the discovery of either ocular or one-point linear perspective, the vessel in which Constantine is standing is far too small for his body. I do not, of course, point these things out to run down the artists, whose work is very pleasing on its own terms, but only to highlight the contrast with the other, more prominent styles of Italian art which will replace those of the Middle Ages.)

In gratitude for his healing, Constantine then gives temporal authority over the city of Rome and “the Western regions” to the Pope, the so-called Donation of Constantine, an assertion of the Pope’s independence, as a secular ruler in his own right, from imperial control. This authority is symbolized by the hat which the Emperor passes to him, which is more elaborate than his miter. (When this fresco was made in the mid-13th century, the Donation of Constantine had not yet been recognized as a forgery; the man who revealed it to be such, an Italian priest and humanist scholar named Lorenzo Valla, died in 1457, is in fact buried right up the street in the Lateran Basilica.)

The Emperor then leads the Pope by the bridle of his horse into the city, a gesture of submission to his authority; this refers to the peace made between Pope Alexander III in 1177 with the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, which in the mid-13th century was very much threatened by the renewal of the conflict under Frederick II.
The story continues on the opposite wall with Constantine’s mother, the dowager Empress St Helena, who holds a debate to determine which of the two monotheistic religions, Christianity or Judaism, is true. A rabbi decides to prove the truth of Judaism by whispering what he claims to be the Divine Name into the ear of a ferocious bull, which immediately dies. However, (as recounted in the Golden Legend), Pope Silvester whispers into its ear, “O name of cursing and death, go out by the command of the Lord Jesus Christ, in Whose name I say to thee: o bull, arise, and return in all mildness to thy flock.” The bull immediately comes back to life and walks away. Helena and all those present, including the rabbis, become Christians.

Helena then goes on her great expedition to the Holy Land, where she discovers the site of Mt Calvary and the relics of the True Cross.

The last fresco in the cycle is badly damaged, but the story it tells is well-known. When the site of Mt Calvary was dug up, the uprights of the three crosses of Our Lord and the two thieves were found separated from the crossbars. The upright of the Cross was identified because the Title was still nailed to it, but the crossbars were indistinguishable from each other. The bishop of Jerusalem, St Macarius, therefore had a dying woman brought to the site, and touched with the wood of each crossbar in turn; she was, of course, healed completely by the third one, which was thus recognized as the Lord’s.

The back wall of the church is decorated with a scene of the Last Judgment that follows all of the classic medieval artistic conventions. The figures are sized according to their hierarchical order, with Christ the largest, the Virgin and the Baptist smaller than He, and the Twelve Apostles smaller still. Christ is surrounded by the instruments of His Passion, while at the upper left, an angel roles up the heavens like a scroll (Apoc. 6, 14), on which we see a black sun and a red moon (ibid. v. 12), and at the upper right, an angel blows a trumpet (8, 6).

Under the narrative frescoes, there originally ran a band of Saints and Prophets in medallions, most of which are fragmentary or completely lost. These three under the scene of the Donation are by far the best preserved.

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