From Constantine to Saint Paul. The birth of the Christian basilica
This exhibition shows the beginning of the great phenomenon of the Christian Basilicas in Rome, Milan and Aquileia, starting from the most ancient testimonies that, according to ongoing researches, might date back all the way to the III Century or to the age of Massenzio. Nonetheless, it is well known that the strongest impulse to the development of Christian Basilicas was contributed by Constantine after the Edict of Milan in 313.
The exhibition highlights the most significant cases of the IV Century in Rome and its suburbs, starting from the foundations personally demanded by Constantine or by members of his family, to continue with those promoted by pontiffs or by other members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and closing the journey with the complex of St. Paul Outside the Walls, also to pay homage to the celebration of the Pauline Year.
Therefore, the Lateran basilica is the first to be examined, after the first documentary evidences of domus ecclesiae scattered around the town even before the IV Century. The next one will be Saint Peter in the Vatican, which, because of its ecumenical importance and for its value due to the presence of the Apostle’s tomb, represents the first important excursus of this exhibition: as a matter of fact, an exclusive section is dedicated to it, with references to the mausoleums in the necropolis of the Vatican Field, located close to the ancient Circus of Nero, and with the reconstruction as a plastic model of Gaio’s monument, around which the Constantinian structure was conceived and built.
The “circiform” or ambulatory basilicas located in Rome’s suburbs, along the consular roads, are interesting for their characteristics (connected to important depositions); their development was limited in time because of the changes in the rites regarding the commemoration of the dead that were taking place there. Among them, Saint Agnes, Saint Lawrence and Basilica Apostolorum, today better known as Saint Sebastian, are the most famous. This theme is of extraordinary fascination both for the variety of examples in the architecture of the monuments, and for what concerns the “life” itself and the liturgy, which revolve around the basilican complexes themselves.
The dedication to saints and martyrs, documented only after 340, calls also for a quick look at their hagiographical history. The core of the second section of the exhibition is the reconstruction of one of the walls in opus sectile of the Aula Ostiense near the Porta Marina; the presentation of the small but sumptuous complex is one of the most outstanding spots of the whole journey, because of the presence of one of the first images depicting Christ dressed as a wise man, derived from the tradition of the Greek philosophers. Other important examples of basilica can be found in Milan, another famous capital of the Western Roman Empire before its decline, and in Aquileia, where the double basilica is strongly influenced in its structure by the pagan basilica of Treviri, connected to the imperial palace, but also presents an unprecedented mosaic decoration.
A third meaningful section for the visitor is the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, built by three Emperors following the request of the pontiff; through it, the pontiff aimed at suggesting that the Christendom was truly united again by building two similar monumental complexes in memory of Peter and Paul, on the roads leading to Rome. The exhibition has first of all a didactic purpose; it shows a careful study of the chosen theme, which represents a steady point along the historical and artistic journey that inaugurates the Christian civilization.