The Battle of the Milvian Bridge, by Giulio Romano (1520 – 1524)
In the midst of the activities surrounding the Papal resignation and speculation on the next choice for the Chair of St Peter, a very important anniversary has gone virtually unnoticed. In February 313 AD, in the reign of Pope St. Melchiades (311-314), the Edict of Milan was promulgated by the Emperor Constantine, a measure that granted Christians the freedom to worship openly, preach the gospel and build churches.
This year therefore marks the 17th centenary of the official recognition of Christianity, which was accorded the same rights as all other religions throughout the Roman Empire, thus instituting the concept of religious tolerance. As a result, the Christian religion emerged from the catacombs, prospered and spread throughout the empire and beyond. The hundreds of church buildings standing in Rome alone bear witness to the proliferation of Christian places of worship over the past 17 centuries, leaving a rich artistic and spiritual legacy.
What led to such a historic decision? In the turbulent year 312 AD, while preparing for a decisive battle, Constantine received a vision: In hoc signo vinces – By this sign you shall conquer. Profoundly struck by the message, Constantine took the Christian symbol of the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ (X and P, the one superimposed on the other, known as the Chi-Rho symbol) and ordered his soldiers to mark their standards with this sign before going into battle. He and his troops marched to victory against the army of rival emperor, Maxentius, at Rome’s Milvian Bridge – where even today tourists can stroll across the River Tiber.
The Battle of the Milvian Bridge was depicted in all its triumph and carnage in a fresco in one of the Vatican’s Raphael rooms many centuries later, and another by Piero Della Francesca (in Arezzo). With this historic victory, Constantine secured undisputed power over the Roman Empire and in gratitude legalized Christianity the following year.
Subsequently, Constantine gave orders for the construction of a basilica over the burial ground of St Peter himself. After many changes over the centuries, today a magnificent and imposing St Peter’s Basilica and Square inspire reverential awe and welcome pilgrims from across the globe.
To further commemorate the emperor’s victory, the Arch of Constantine was erected near the Coliseum where his predecessors had amused themselves with the blood of Christian martyrs — a sharp contrast, indeed. Patient observers can follow the battles and conquests of the emperor on the numerous panels comprising the arch.
In tribute, an unknown sculptor of the time carved a colossal marble statue of the Emperor Constantine, of which only fragments remain. The enormous head, measuring 2.60 meters, shows a face with eyes directed just slightly upwards that conveys a sense of firmness, awe, authority, confidence, and gratitude. It can be viewed in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museum complex in Rome.
Constantine, though considered the first Christian emperor, and while appreciative of divine intervention and victory in battle, did not always live or rule by Christian virtue. History tells us that he executed his son by his first wife, and somehow his second wife disappeared one day and soon was found dead. Constantine did become baptized shortly before he died in 337 AD.
Given that the formal recognition of Christianity was promulgated as the Edict of Milan, the City of Milan is hosting an exhibition which displays the world in the early 300s and how Constantine incorporated his symbol of conquest, the Chi-Rho, into coinage and hundreds of other exquisite objects of the time. Besides presenting the Roman Empire of the period in all of its military and regal might and the transition to a new era shifting away from persecution towards peace, a section of the exhibit celebrates the life of St Helena, the mother of Constantine and a powerful person in her own right, who traveled widely in search of the true cross of Christ.
The Edict of Milan marked not only the legalization of Christianity but the birth of the concept of religious tolerance in the western world, granting freedom of expression to all faiths and religions, that has endured to the present day. The ensuing 1700 years have seen Christianity implanted in every nation on earth, though not without sporadic persecutions, bloody and bloodless, that continue to the present day. With the passage of centuries, divisions appeared within Christianity, leading to a few Orthodox and many Protestant churches.
While all Christians can jointly celebrate this anniversary of Christianity, in Wittenberg (Germany) Lutherans are preparing to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of his parish church in 2017. Nonetheless, ecumenists continue to work ceaselessly to bridge differences in order to see Christianity restored to its original “oneness” while pursuing their objective in an atmosphere of peace and tolerance that began 17 centuries earlier with Constantine the Great.
The exhibition at Milan’s Royal Palace has been running since October 25th and will end on March 24th.
Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.