The Art of Recycling

Details from the frieze of the Arch of Constantine and from the side apse of the Mausoleum of Costanza. Pen on paper
by Justin Bradshaw

In successful and busy creative workshops, it has always been common practice to recycle the best material, reusing large parts of previous creations and re-elaborating them within new commissions. The practice can be seen in the work of sculptors and mosaicists of ancient Rome where figures and scenes reappear like the stock characters from countless television soap operas.

This method of recycling one’s own (or other’s) creations becomes interesting when there is a dramatic change in the content. The early fourth century saw just such a change, with the Emperor Constantine and his successors pouring money into the new class of Christian clerics. Christian themes had been depicted before, and generally Christ was shown as a wise teacher or good shepherd, but this was the new Imperial Christianity, He was now unconquerable ruler of the Universe.

The commissions arriving in workshops from these newly rich patrons were for unfamiliar characters and scenes, but underlying patterns could be found and the designers dug out their stock characters of minor and major gods, Emperors, genii and winged messengers.

Details from the frieze of the Arch of Constantine and from the triumphal arch of Saint Mary Major. Pen on paper

Christ is given the attributes of an emperor, golden toga, throne and halo. Supreme ruler of the new and perfect world to come. Angels take on the appearance of winged victories, messengers from the gods who bring divine approval to earth. Christ's disciples are depicted either side of him like the advisors and officials of the imperial court.

The new Christian religion was given second-hand clothes.

The passage of imagery into early Christian art can be witnessed by comparing the Arch of Constantine, a monument firmly placed in classical Rome and built in 315 ad., with scenes created for churches within the following 100 years.

Details from the frieze of the Arch of Constantine and from the apse mosaic of Santa Pudenziana. Pen on paper

The figure receiving the scroll of the law from God the Father in a mosaic of the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza (late fourth century, above drawing) seems lifted straight from the character who receives gifts from Constantine in his outstretched toga. The winged Victory who flies above Constantine, holding a crown over his head, in the triumphal arch mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore (420s ad., drawing to the right) becomes the angel flying over the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation. Christ surrounded by his apostles in front of a background of the heavenly Jerusalem in Santa Pudenziana (380s circa) mimics the composition of the scene of Constantine standing in the Forum as his subjects surround him.