The Art of the Triumphant Christian Church
Constantine the Great, revered by Christians throughout the Middle Ages as the first Christian emperor, became the patron of the Christians and Christian art almost by chance, or, as he declared, through the will of the Christian God. Constantine claimed the imperial throne through his father, who had ruled the West after Diocletian's abdication in 305. Although the army proclaimed Constantine his father's rightful successor, the Eastern ruler, Maximian, had designated his own son, Maxentius, as Western Caesar. In the bitter struggle that ensued, Constantine ultimately defeated Maxentius in 312 at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, near Rome. On the eve of the battle, Constantine had a dream in which he saw a flaming cross bearing the words: "In this sign thou shalt conquer." He ordered each soldier to place on his shield Chi Rho (XP), the monogram of Christ. However much the battle may have been determined by Maxentius' tactical blunders, Constantine believed that it was the Christian God who had granted his army victory. Now uncontestedly Western Augustus, Constantine felt a gratitude that in time would change the entire course of European civilization.
Constantine immediately began to undo the wrongs that his predecessors had visited upon the Christians. First he issued a decree whereby Christians would be tolerated and their confiscated property restored. Then in 313 he recognized Christianity as a lawful religion. In a crucial pronouncement known as the Edict of Milan, issued in concert with the Eastern Augustus, Licinius, Constantine formalized his earlier decrees. The text of the edict, a model of religious toleration, allowed not only to Christians but to the adherents of every other religion the choice of following whatever form of worship they pleased. Giving freedom to Christian and pagan alike should have assured the Emperor a reign unhampered by civil strife. Having secured his authority in the West, Constantine sought absolute supremacy in the East as well. His struggle with Licinius lasted for ten more years, but Constantine emerged victorious.
But if Constantine expected the Christians to unite behind his government as a pious, harmonious people with a single belief, he was disappointed. Christian theologians debated the nature and meaning of Christ and Christianity, attacking each other with the same vigor that they directed toward unbelievers. A critical problem in the fourth century was the very definition of the nature of Christ. To most Christians indivisible equality of Christ's human and divine natures was essential to the dogma of salvation; all the while he lived and died on the Cross as a man, He remained the Son of God. Nevertheless Arius (d. 336), a Libyan priest in Alexandria, claimed that Christ had one, supernatural nature neither wholly human nor totally divine, and furthermore, that the three persons of the Trinity, while similar, did not have identical