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Rome (Lazio), Italy

Vision of the Cross

Raphael Rooms: Hall of Constantine

Vatican Museums

Even though the visit to Raphael’s Rooms begins at the Hall of Constantine, this room was the last to be decorated and more importantly, the only one not frescoed by Raphael himself. Fate had decreed that the great artist should die prematurely at the height of his career at the age of 37. So his students continued the work, utilizing the preparatory sketches that the master had already finished.

The hall takes its name from the frescoes that tell the story of the Roman emperor Constantine, the first to embrace Christianity and to concede freedom of religion within the Empire. The entire Hall is a celebration of the triumph of the Christian religion over paganism.

Vision of the Cross

The Vision of the Cross, one of the first frescoes, refers to the vision that came to Constantine just before the bloody battle against Maxentius. Maxentius had proclaimed himself emperor of Rome; legend has it that, shortly before the battle began, raising his eyes towards the sun, Constantine saw a cross and Greek words telling him that he would win the battle only if he used that symbol as his standard.

The fresco is crowded, full of movement and crowned with allegorical figures; the action takes place against a backdrop of ancient Rome, a precious clue that gives us an idea of how the Roman monuments must have appeared in Raphael’s time.

Battle of Constantine Against Maxentius

The second fresco, on one of the long sides of the Hall, is the Battle of Constantine Against Maxentius: it narrates the ferocious combat with Emperor Constantine ending up the winner. Maxentius, the loser of the battle, is in the foreground, drowning in the waters of the Tiber river.

The battle took place at the Milvian Bridge, north of Rome, and, in this fresco also, the backdrop faithfully shows the way things were at the time but with a little jewel of a nod to Raphael: on the hill overlooking the scene of battle, you can just make out Villa Madama, that the artist who died so tragically young had built for the pope. The Emperor Constantine is very visible as he triumphantly rides his white horse, behind him the banners with the cross that brought him victory.

Baptism of Constantine

On the opposite wall, the Baptism of Constantine tells what happened after the great victory. The emperor, naked, kneeled before Pope Sylvester who baptized him, thus becoming the defender of Christianity.

The place where this occurred is the Baptistery of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, and the figure of Pope Sylvester has the face of Clement VII, in homage to the pontiff who had continued the works in this Hall.

Donation of Rome

The last of the episodes is the Donation of Rome. Here, too, Constantine kneels in front of Pope Sylvester with the face of Clement VII. The emperor donates the city of Rome -symbolised by a small, golden model- to the pope.

Of particular interest in this work is the fact that the scene takes place inside the ancient, paleochristian basilica of Saint Peter built by Emperor Constantine himself. This is important historically because it shows how the basilica must have been at the very moment: Raphael was transforming it into the magnificent basilica we know today.