May 21, 2015

The Sarcophagus of Saint Helen, Mother of Constantine the Great

Sarcophagus of Helen

This monumental red porphyry sarcophagus is believed to have held the remains of Helen, mother of Constantine the Great, who died around 328 A.D. and was buried in the Imperial mausoleum at Tor Pignattara, between the via Prenestina and the via Labicana on the via Casilina outside Rome. The Mausoleum of Helen was built by the Roman emperor Constantine I between 326 and 330, originally most likely as a tomb for himself, but later assigned to his mother, Helen.

In the ninth century, part of Helen's relics were transferred to the diocese of Reims in France. During the reign of Pope Innocentius II (1130-1143) the remaining bones were moved to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in the center of Rome. Helen's sarcophagus was reused for the burial of Pope Anastasius IV (1153-1154). For this purpose the coffin was transported from the Mausoleum of Helen, which by the seventh century was referred to as a basilica, to the Lateran Basilica.

Mausoleum of Helen

Ultimately the sarcophagus was moved to the Vatican museums in 1777 and restored by Gaspare Sibilla and Giovanni Pierantoni and mounted on four lions carved by Francesco Antonio Franzoni.

The sarcophagus is carved in Egyptian porphyry, used only in the finest Roman imperial monuments. It is carved with military scenes with Roman soldiers on horseback and barbarian prisoners. On the lid of the sarcophagus figures of cupids and victories hold garlands, while on the very top there are two lions either side of the ridge - one sleeping, the other lying down. This very military decoration, not really suitable for a female burial, has led scholars to suppose that the sarcophagus was originally made for a male member of the Imperial family, such as Helen's husband, Constantius Chlorus or, more probably, Constantine himself.

The sarcophagus now is in the Sala a Croce Greca of the Pio-Clementine Vatican Museum.