by Joseph Williams
Inside the small Chapel of San Silvestro, adjacent to the Church of Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome (pictured left), a vivid cycle of medieval frescoes illustrates the life of the fourth-century papal saint Sylvester. The program revolves around the apocryphal Donation of Constantine (Donatio Constantini), an event fabricated by the Church in which the emperor allegedly entrusted temporal authority over Rome and the Western Empire, along with all its riches, to the papacy. The celebratory treatment of the Donatio in the frescoes is a remarkable example of papal propaganda in the thirteenth century, a time when the Latin Church was reasserting its territorial claims in the west. A deeper understanding of this pro-papal visual rhetoric can throw light on the reasoning of later critiques of the papacy, such as a famous passage in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno that directly attributes the corruption of popes to Constantine’s gift.
It was probably with didactic art like the Quattro Coronati frescoes in mind that Dante wrote the following stanza (Inf. 19.115-17): “Ah Constantine, what wickedness was born—/and not from your conversion—but from the dower/that you bestowed upon the first rich father!” [Ahi, Costantin, di quanto mal fu matre, /non la tua conversion, ma quella dote/ che da te prese il primo ricco patre!]
The passage, which culminates an inspired polemic against the current pope as well the entire papal succession, argues that the seed of their spiritual corruption was the bounty of temporal gifts that Pope Sylvester, “the first rich father,” received from Constantine. Why does Dante choose the Donatio Constantini as the linchpin of his argument? The answer lies in the politics and ideology of the papacy during Dante’s time, in which the donation myth had become the chief justification for the territorial ambitions of popes.
The papacy had invoked Constantine’s fictional donation as early as 754 CE to authorize Carolingian King Pepin’s gift of Ravenna and the Exarchate of Italy to Pope Stephen II (made in exchange for the Church’s recognition of Pepin as King of the Franks). As the popes began to claim more territories through such donations, ultimately controlling the large belt of land known as the Papal States, they came to stake their temporal authority to the story of Constantine’s gift. By the thirteenth century, the Donatio had become the centerpiece of the rhetoric backing the papacy’s struggle for territories and alliances against the Holy Roman Empire, a contest called the ‘Guelph-Ghibelline’ conflicts. It is in this context of papal political propaganda that the Chapel of San Silvestro, consecrated in 1246, and its hagiographic frescoes should be understood.
When viewing the frescoes, it is easy to sense the powerful role images could have played in making the papal position more alluring. The space is sumptuous. The intimate barrel-vaulted room is paved with a Cosmati mosaic pattern that snakes around in colorful loops as it transports the visitor from the west portal to the east alter. The vibrant marble floor tiles are matched by the richly colored fresco panels that march along the wall at eye level.
The frescoes are presented in a didactic manner, in that each scene highlights a key moment or symbolic juxtaposition of figures that, when considered together, vouch for Saint Sylvester’s temporal claims as natural and God-given. The cycle begins on the west wall. Here, the upper lunette contains a monumental image of Christ in the throne of judgment with saints on either side of him: Mary, John the Baptist, and the apostles. Below are three scenes that represent Constantine, recognizable by his imperial purple and gold vestments, in Rome. Constantine is sick with leprosy–a punishment from God for his persecution of Christians. In the first panel, the emperor’s pagan priests suggest a cure for the Emperor’s leprosy involving bathing in the blood of three thousand innocent children. Constantine is persuaded against this course of action when, in the second image, he is visited in his sleep by apparitions of the apostles Peter and Paul. The apostles convince the Emperor to call upon Sylvester, the Bishop of Rome, who has fled Rome for fear of persecution. Over the following two scenes, which extend onto the north wall, emissaries sent by Constantine summon Sylvester to Rome from his refuge on Mount Soracte, where we recognize him by his bishop’s garb.
The next four episodes present the key moments of Constantine’s reconciliation with Sylvester in Rome. First, Sylvester asks Constantine to supplicate himself before an icon of Saints Peter and Paul. Then Sylvester baptizes Constantine (an apocryphal event, for we know Constantine converted on his death bed, as was customary in Roman imperial times). As the saint dunks a nude Constantine into a fabulous gold font, the leprous sores immediately vanish.
The next episode is the most important and also the most visually complex. Sylvester, still wearing the bishop’s vestments and mitre, sits in the imperial throne at left, while Constantine and his entourage convey multiple symbols of imperium (recognition of the power to command) to the bishop, as seen above. It appears that Constantine has first offered his imperial crown and that Sylvester has gracefully rejected it, for the crown has been passed back to Constantine’s retinue, who stand in the ramparts of the city. Sylvester is thence offered three other symbols of imperium: the tiara (the principal symbol of the pope’s temporal authority), a white horse, and a parasol. Herzman and Stephany argue that this scene represents an obligatory act of feudal homage, rather than an exceptional gift. The fresco conveys a powerful visual argument that the pope has been granted his rightful status as sovereign, and not merely priest.
In the final scene on this wall, Sylvester, now recognizably a pope, wears his tiara, rides his white horse, and is shaded by the parasol while also accompanied by bishops wearing mitres (an illustration of the hierarchy of the Church), while Constantine, once again shown in a subordinate position with respect to Sylvester, leads the pope’s white horse by the reins. This striking image in fact represents the contemporary pageantry. From as far back as 754, when King Pepin made his gift of Italian territories to Pope Stephen II, an actor playing Constantine would ceremonially serve as groom of the pope’s horse, ritualizing the Holy Roman Emperor’s fealty to the pontiff.
The remaining scenes, which continue on the south wall, illustrate other miracles from the life of Sylvester. In the first scene, Sylvester reanimates a dead bull, which inspires the conversion of Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena. In the next scene, Helena travels to Jerusalem and identifies the True Cross (her own most famous miracle). The final panel is almost completely destroyed, but scholars have conjectured based on the existing traces that it might have represented Sylvester taming a dragon. Bordering the entire cycle below are busts of prophets, whose authority is invoked to cement the credibility of the narrative.
Although the main audience of the chapel frescoes would have been clergy, scholars have argued that the chapel may have sometimes been open to the public, on the grounds that its consecration plaque offers rewards to visitors, both on the date of consecration as well as during Holy Week every subsequent year. Supporters of this theory also point out that the chapel is located in close proximity to S. Croce in Gerusalemme and the cathedral of S. Giovanni Laterano—major pilgrimage destinations and important stations in Rome’s Holy Week festivities. The dazzling decorative program would have been a striking reminder of the wealth of the Church, while clerics could have used the images as visual aids for their didactic argument, the main thrust of which was that history legitimizes the pope’s temporal possessions and authorizes him to govern his territories in the Western Empire.
Dante would most certainly have been familiar with the papacy’s rhetorical use of the Donatio Constantini. The poet’s particular understanding of the event would have also been inflected by the hagiography of Saint Sylvester in Jacopo de Voragine’s Golden Legend (c. 1260), which, depending on when the frescoes were actually added to the Chapel of San Silvestro, could conceivably have been a source for them too. But whereas in the Quattro Coronati cycle the donation forms part of a matrix of ceremonial and visual propaganda that justifies the temporal claims of the papacy, Dante sees in the Donatio the origin of a legacy of greed, one which connected the earliest popes to those of his own day.
Dante begins Canto 19 of Inferno by lambasting simony, a practice named for the followers of Simon Magnus and defined as the exchange of spiritual gifts for temporal ones (such as the selling of church offices for money). The poet describes finding, on his tour of Inferno, the simonists thrust headfirst into pits in ground. Dante begins an extended metaphor in which the church, understood as the “bride” of Christ, is ‘prostituted’ by simonists (Inf. 19.1-6):
O Simon Magus! O his sad disciples!
Rapacious ones, who take the things of God,
that ought to be the brides of Righteousness,
and make them fornicate for gold and silver!
The time has come to let the trumpet sound for you;
your place is here in this third pouch.
O Simon mago, o miseri seguaci
che le cose di Dio, che di bontate
deon essere spose, e voi rapaci
per oro e per argento avolterate,
or convien che per voi suoni la tromba,
però che ne la terza bolgia state.
The poet encounters among the simonists the late Pope Nicholas III, the most recent of the succession of popes, all of whom have their heads shaved and have been thrust one after another into a single deep pit (the coital symbolism is thinly veiled). Nicholas engages Dante in conversation, mistaking him for the papal successor Boniface VIII (the current pope in Dante’s time), come to take Nicholas’s place and to push him deeper into the pit. There is, of course, great interest in Dante’s accusation that Boniface is a simonist, especially considering the vexed interpersonal politics between these two individuals. But the larger point is that Dante sees the entire lineage of popes as guilty of simony. Indeed, in the concluding passage, quoted earlier, Dante traces the tradition of papal simony to Constantine’s “dower” of the riches of the Roman Empire to the papacy. The use of the concept of dowry to describe the gift extends the metaphor of the Church as bride: now the papacy is her bridegroom. It is implied that the groom was corrupted by the massive wealth he inherited from Rome when he wedded the Church, and thus, like the other simonists, he is culpable for her violation.
It appears that the ostentation with which the Church had celebrated the story of Constantine’s gift in the thirteenth century, using ritual, pomp, and visual propaganda to justify the pope’s political claims and legitimize his inheritance of the wealth of Rome, furnished Dante with ammunition for his polemic in Inferno. As a matter of fact, Dante visited Rome at the turn of the fourteenth century, and some scholars have suggested that he might have seen the frescoes in the Chapel of San Silvestro. Whether or not this is the case, the program is a characteristic example of the papal rhetoric with which the poet would have been familiar, both through his theological learning and through his personal experience with the papacy. This propaganda provided a ready target for the striking verses of Inferno 19.
Barelli, Lia. The monumental complex of Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome. Translated by Christopher McDowall. Rome: Viella, 2009.
Herzman, Ronald B. and William A. Stephany. “Dante and the Frescoes at Santi Quattro Coronati.” Speculum 87, no. 1 (January 2012). https://doi.org/10.1017/S0038713411003873.
Park, Dabney G. “Dante and the Donation of Constantine.” Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, no. 130 (2012): 67-161. Accessed July 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43490478.