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Did the Edict of Milan really usher in tolerance and peace?

Posted on Facebook on March 3, 2013

Yesterday, I visited an exhibit held in Milan commemorating the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan. Named “Constantino, 313 d.C” and held at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, it is truly an amazing exhibit. The curators have amassed together an incredible amount of artifacts from more than 100 museums, most of them from Italy, it is true, but there are also very precious pieces sent from France, Britain, Germany, Austria, Serbia and the US.

The exhibition centers around Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and focuses on the text of the Edict of Milan issued jointly between Constantine and Licinius in 313. At entrance and on their website it says,

“The exhibition celebrates the anniversary of the enactment, in 313 AD, of the “Edict of Milan” by Constantine, the Roman Emperor in the West, and by Licinius, his counterpart in the East. After centuries of persecution, with this edict Christianity was declared lawful and, thus, it inaugurated a period of religious tolerance and great political and cultural innovation.”

On display are historic artifacts that tell many significant stories, all very meticulously researched and exquisitely portrayed. For example, there is a beautifully told story of the evolution of the Chrismon, Constantine’s famous sign that coupled the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek and which he supposedly hoisted in his famous labarum in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge the year before the Edict of Milan was declared. We are given many previous accounts of the Chrismon being used on sarcophagi and later on in lamps, rings, amulets, and, of course, coins. The numismatic collection is one of the most impressive things about the collection. Equally impressive is the very detailed reconstruction of ancient Milan based on recent archaeological excavations.

Also significant is the large number of busts and statues on display that tell the story of how sculpture was used for official Roman propaganda. Most impressive of them, in my mind, is the bronze bust of Constantine that comes from the National Museum of Belgrade and which offers an introspective look at this great man. I believe I saw this bust before in the “Byzantium” exhibition that the Royal Academy of Arts hosted in London a couple of years ago.

The exhibition ends with two beautiful halls devoted to Helena, Constantine’s mother whom he revered and elevated to the status of Augusta. Again, the curation is original and very well thought out. We get glimpses of the position of women in the court, Helena’s strong personality, and the incredible story of her finding the True Cross in Jerusalem. This, of course, is a very common theme touched upon by Western artists throughout the ages, and the curators did well to choose only four of them. Together, the paintings in this last hall seem to tell the story of how this episode was depicted over time and how it complex it is to tell the story of the triumph of the cross as The symbol of Christianity. Cleverly, they chose to end this section with Veronese’s Vision of St. Helena which shows Helena dreaming of the cross, and the cross actually occupying but a tiny part of the painting.

This is actually part of a larger theme that the exhibition tries to tell, namely, and on the artistic level, how the cross became the symbol of Christianity. For the exhibition reminds us that in early Roman times, Christ was never depicted on the cross which was seen as a very ignoble way of executing the most hated and derided of criminals. The exhibition shows many earlier examples of depicting Christ in art: as a teacher, as the good shepherd, etc, but never on the cross.

As impressive as this side of the curation is, I had a serious problem with the main theme of the exhibition, namely, how the Edict of Milan marks a great moment in the spread of tolerance. This theme is repeated in many galleries to highlight how Constantine’s conversion and the subsequent Edict marked an end of the persecution that the Church and the early Christians suffered from. Be that as it may, the Edict did not usher in a period of tolerance and coexistence among all faiths; rather, it was the beginning of a relentless, ruthless persecution of paganism that has not ended till today.

Besides the fact that it is actually doubtful if ever Constantine had already converted when the Edict of Milan was issued, or even when he waged the Battle of the Milvian Bridge when he allegedly hoisted his Labarum with the Chrismon on it ( he was baptized only on his deathbed), Constantine’s Edict was an acknowledgement of how powerful the new sect had become, and a very clever attempt to effectively nationalize the church and turn it into an organ of imperial rule and dynastic warfare. It is no accident, for example, that a few years later, Constantine entered into a fierce war against Licinius, the co-author of the Edict of Milan, and their final military confrontation in the Battle of Adrianople (324) was depicted in religious terms, with Constantine representing the newly triumphant religion, and his former friend representing paganism. The exhibition actually shows moments of paganism coexisting with Christianity (e.g. a beautiful and exquisitely preserved many busts of Serapius, a beautiful statue of Isis, which, incidentally, and sadly, did not come from Egypt as the Graeco Roman and the Coptic Museums do have very fine examples of these latter gods, viz, Serapis and Isis), but this was not coexistence informed by any belief in tolerance but is a sign of shifting times, for in a few years’ time, the imperiously triumphant christianity would go after its rivals and establish monotheism in an unprecedentedly vicious and intolerant manner. No Isises, Serapises, Mithras or Joves survived.

In short, the exhibition, while beautifully curated is based on a fundamentally flawed reading of this most important moment in the development of Christianity. “Constantino’ 313 d.C” ‘s reading of the Edict of Milan is informed more by Europe’s present anxiety of the failure of it’s multi-culti politics than by an accurate reading of the past.

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