This painting by the great Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1577-1640), was inspired by the legend of Emperor Constantine seeing in the sky a miraculous symbol, which the emperor would soon turn into a battle standard and shield decoration for his upcoming battle at Milvian Bridge in the year 312. The emperor’s biographer, Eusebius (c. 260-339), described the memorable episode in his Life of Constantine:
“He [Constantine] said that about mid-day, when the sun was beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck by amazement, and his whole army also, which happened to be following him on some expedition, and witnessed the miracle” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, I.28).
Eusebius’ imagery of Constantine and his army staring in awe at the symbol in the sky is what Peter Paul Rubens re-created with paint. The symbol, itself, called the labarum, can be faintly seen in the bright clouds, sending rays of light toward Constantine’s hands. After seeing the vision in the sky, Constantine and his troops decided to re-create the symbol on the ground. Eusebius recorded how the first iteration of Constantine’s ornate and expensive labarum might have looked:
“A long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a piece transversely laid over it. On top of the whole was fixed a crown, formed by the intertexture of gold and precious stones; and on this, two letters indicating the name of Christ, symbolized the Saviour’s title by means of its first characters, the letter P being intersected by X exactly in its center…From the transverse piece which crossed the spear was suspended a kind of streamer of purple cloth, covered with a profuse embroidery of most brilliant precious stones; and which, being also richly interlaced with gold, presented an indescribable degree of beauty to the beholder” (Life of Constantine, I.31).
After adopting this new symbol, Constantine would go on to defeat his rival in the west, Maxentius, at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. It was a victory that allowed Constantine to become emperor of the Western Roman Empire, while the east remained in civil war between Licinius and Maximinus (who was defeated by Licinius in 313). Constantine eventually wrested control of the Eastern Empire for himself in the year 324, making him the emperor of the complete Roman Empire from then on until his death in 337.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Life of Constantine by Eusebius, published by Samuel Bagster and Sons and J. Werthrimer and Co., 1843.