About Colossal Sculptures: Colossal Head of Emperor Constantine I "The Great"

By Carroll, Colleen | Arts & Activities, September 2010 | Go to article overview

About Colossal Sculptures: Colossal Head of Emperor Constantine I "The Great"


Carroll, Colleen, Arts & Activities


In the annals of history, the subject of this month Clip & Save Art Print is, as your students would put it, ginormous. And so is the colossal marble bust that depicts him. Emperor Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great, was sole leader of the Roman Empire from 325 until his death in 337.

It was Constantine who made Christianity the official religion of Rome and its territories and, after which, moved the empire's capital from the eternal city to Byzantium, which he eventually renamed Constantinople (contemporary Istanbul, Turkey).

The portrait bust was originally part of a larger sculpture of the emperor, in which he was depicted seated upon a throne. Known as an acrolith, meaning "stone at the extremities," the torso which no longer exists--was most likely constructed of a brick and wood framework over which was placed gilded bronze. The head, arms, hands, legs, feet and head were carved of marble.

As a whole, the seated figure measured 40 feet high and the head measured 8 feet high. Historians believe that the torso was pillaged sometime during the late Antique Period, with its bronze stolen and melted down for use elsewhere.

The face of Constantine is typical of late Roman portraiture, combining elements of Classical (Western) and Byzantine (Eastern) styles. The stylized rendering of the hair recalls the Classical. The life like rendering of the nose, chin and jaw recalls the Roman penchant for naturalism. The oversized eyes looking upward toward the heavens presages Byzantine icon portraiture.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: "Constantine adopted an official image that recalled the calm, youthful faces of Augustus and Trajan. As part of his plan to reorganize the empire, Constantine's portraiture offered a new iconography to match his new regime."

By the time of its design and construction in the early fourth century, the colossal sculpture of Constantine I was simply the newest in a long tradition of colossi. …

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