Constantine the Great – York's Roman Emperor (31 March – 29 Oct 2006, Yorkshire Museum, York, UK)

An exhibition review by Mark Hall of Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland. Comments welcome!

As many readers will be aware, 2006 marks the 1700th anniversary of Constantine the Great’s assumption of the Roman purple, on 25 July 306, in Eboracum (York). To celebrate York Museums and Gallery Trust staged this impeccably timed, significant international exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum. Long awaited by this reviewer, with eager anticipation, alas the delivery left me rather disappointed. This is not to be-grudge the hard work that must have gone into the planning (not least of so many international loans) and interpretation of the exhibition but simply to suggest that more should have been achievable with such a golden opportunity and that the Yorkshire Museum should have been able to demonstrate greater proficiency in display dynamics. The perception I came away with was that the catalogue was commissioned (and very largely delivers the goods) but that it was then poorly ‘translated’ into the exhibition.

The exhibition sets out to tell the story of Constantine and his European/Mediterranean legacy. The approach it takes to doing this is fundamentally flawed. Its promotional literature talks of using a major loan exhibition to illustrate the story of Constantine. In other words the story comes ready prepared and the objects/material culture serves in a rather hackneyed museum tradition, to illustrate that story. Surely museology has moved on from this approach? Surely material culture ceased to be the handmaid of history a long tome ago? The exhibition pursues its approach through a physical lay-out encompassing four rooms, with a preferred left – right circular route and a rather sombre ambience conjured by predominantly dark blues and browns in the furnishings (the notable exception being the carpet version of parts of the Hinton St Mary mosaic), with cream coloured wall-mounted panels and hanging banners for the thematic texts. Each room tackles a set number of themes but the theme text and the objects are often awkwardly laid-out in relation to each other. For the record, the exhibition themes were; Room1: Constantine the Great, The Young Constantine, The Accession of Constantine, Constantinian York, Constantine’s Greatest Achievement and Foundation of Greatness; Room 2: Power and Privilege, Monuments and Propaganda, Rome and Constantinople: Capital Cities and Trier and York: the Northern Cities; Room 3: Roman Gods, Constantine’s Religious World, The Soldier’s Story, Religious Tolerance, Council of Nicaea and Luxury Living; Room 4: Jewels and Ornament, Peace and Prosperity, Constantine’s Legacy and The Christian Inheritance. These main text panels are pitched at the right, accessible level but there seemed to be a missing level of text, that needed to coherently introduce each group of objects. Had this been done it may also have prevented such over-sights as not explaining to the lay-visitor what a Contortionate was (it is only explained in the glossary of the catalogue). The individual object labels were numbered (in a non-linear sequence) by catalogue number but the objects were not given a corresponding number, making the matching of object and label a wearisome task for the uninitiated (as several overheard grumbles testified).

Constantine image One way in which the exhibition sought imaginatively to make a link between some of the objects and their interpretation was through the use of four listening posts, one in each room of the exhibition, which delivered sound-bite stories of the Late Roman experience, three male and one female. The Emperor’s Story was Constantine looking-back on his life; Alexander’s Story was the voice of a sausage-seller in Rome; A Soldier’s Story was the voice of an infantryman on the eve of the battle of Milvian Bridge and A Young Girl’s Story, the voice of a 10 (?) year old girl playing during the construction of her parents villa. I liked the idea of these (developing stories as they did from the tombstone of Alexander for example and the tiles marked with the footprint of a child and a dog) but they proved rather charmless and anodyne. Their authenticity was further vitiated by the use of the same male voice (differently accented) and the use of an adult female voice clearly pretending to be a 10-year old girl. They were all, to varying degrees, also the voices of ‘privileged’ Romans – there was no room here for the voices of slaves, persecuted Christians/pagans, ‘barbarian’ opponents or even a resident of Eboracum. An additional interpretive sound element came right at the end of the exhibition: a continuous-loop audio of the by now familiar male voice, this time reading in Latin and English the Nicene Creed. There was no use of computer technology anywhere in the exhibition. Use of such technology should not of course be simply for the sake of it but the technology has clearly demonstrated itself as a valuable way to extend and reinforce in-gallery interpretation and to engage young minds in thinking about things (the Museum of London’s new medieval gallery is a good example – see Hall 2006). Unfortunately the only concession to “interactivity” in the York exhibition is a hand-held Family Guide leaflet (and medal-designing competition), which proved to be a rather perfunctory and unabsorbing: my 12-year old daughter had done with it in 10 minutes or so and gave it a derisory thumbs down (she much preferred the mosaic-kit in the Roman Life Gallery, which absorbed her for 20 minutes or more).

Perhaps the most telling evidence demonstrating the exhibitions failure to get to grips with some of its objects was provided by the treatment of the material from Scotland. A gold bow brooch from Moray, a terracotta model wool-bale from Skye and the Traprain Law treasure were all under interpreted in a very specific way: nothing was said of their Scottish contexts, which being non-Roman and beyond the frontier were surely worthy of exploration. But the exhibition’s interest them did not extend beyond their generic qualities as objects illustrative of Late roman life within the Empire. However it is a pleasure to acknowledge that even in this light interesting things were said about the Traprain Law treasure (see below) and the catalogue entry for the wool-bale model adds a possible explanation for its find spot in terms of trade and the huge demand for wool within the Empire. That said the Moray-found brooch gets no exploration of its context in the catalogue either. Several other objects in the exhibition felt somewhat constrained and ill at ease, notably the leather shoes and Dalmatic from Egypt. The ‘slippers’ were made to stand for elaborate 4th century footwear but even the catalogue dates them to the 5th or 6th century.

The other key area in which the exhibition disappoints is in its assessment of Constantine’s legacy. This associates some exciting fragments of Anglo-Saxon sculpture from Reculver and Dewsbury with a statement proclaiming them as the Anglo-Saxon legacy of the artworks commissioned by Constantine in the churches of Rome. It is left to the catalogue to make the case for this (which it does with a compelling and stimulating essay by Jane Hawkes). However, neither the exhibition nor the catalogue tackles the wider legacy either on the Continent or the rest of Britain. Constantine was clearly an important model of Christian kingship, for example, in 8th-10th century Scotland, where several rulers (of Britons, Picts and Scots) bear the name Constantine (Williams et al 1991, 88-90; Driscoll 1998; Thomas1994) and where at least one king is depicted as an Imperial Rider, on the Dupplin Cross (Forsyth 1995, Henderson 1999 and Henderson & Henderson 2004, 191).

The exhibition did achieve some notable successes, including the sense it gives of political and religious life in the 4th century, with the Emperor rarely in Rome but constantly on the move in the frontier zones. The broad-brush coverage of the shifts in religious tolerance and the fluidity of religious symbols across paganism and Christianity are engagingly put across. Thus we can see a bun of hair with two hair pins intact (from York) their heads carved in the shape of two-handed cantherus vessels, sacred to the god Bacchus and used by Christians to signify the Eucharist (though the label has an unfortunate double typographical error, with ‘… to signifying the eucharist.’). The perceptive labelling of the Traprain Law treasure further brings out this fascinating sharing of pagan and Christian ideas, both as an element in fashion and taste and for more genuinely religious reasons. The exhibition also deserves applause for bringing together so many exciting and stimulating objects. My own favourites included the Froitzheim dice tower with its inscriptions which include VTERE FELIX VIVAS (‘Use happily, may you live’) both having a sense of good luck being wished for the game ahead and that amuletic, apotropaic protection was embedded in a wide variety of everyday objects (it stuck me that the model wool-bale may also have an amuletic quality): a similar inscription is to be found on the Flawborough baptism tank, VTERE FELIX. The tank and the dice tower may of course be particularly appropriate, given their functions, for good luck messages. A green-glass moulded disc decorated with a Chi-Rho set within a beaded border has no suggested function: its use of the Chi-Rho may be amuletic and its size and shape would make it ideal as a gaming piece. One other object deserves mention here, a life-size copper alloy sculpture of a goose, from Constantinople. Described as a ‘major piece of classical sculpture’, this is certainly true but it also made me think of the perfect delineation and elegant naturalism of the goose in Pictish art (e.g. the Easterton of Roseisle slab, ECMS 124 & fig. 130a) – the eye and hand of the great artist is not constrained by time and place and periodisation. It also reminded me how fully sculpture can engage the senses: the goose has a detachable neck and head and a pipe through its beak, which could have emitted smoke or sound or been used to pour liquid.

Away from the exhibition the key successful outcome is the catalogue (Hartley et al 2006), a fine a rewarding example of interdisciplinary collaboration that provides much (and more) of the interpretation lacking in the exhibition itself. At the time of writing this review (April 2006) the international conference planned for July has yet to take place but will surely also be accounted a success and see a further publication.

The exhibition then was by turns annoying, frustrating and stimulating (in planned and unplanned ways). Ultimately however it did nothing to question Constantine’s image as a great man of history and a ‘good thing’, in 2010/11 I doubt the same celebratory tone will be struck over the anniversary of York’s pre-Constantinian imperial incumbents, Septimius Severus and his successor-son Caracalla. All three men come with well-stereotyped profiles. Setting any of them in their times should not seek to reinforce their stereotypes but to untangle some of their and their world’s real complexities.

Mark Hall,
Perth Museum & Art Gallery


Hall, M. A., 2006. Times and Places: New Displays of Medieval Material Culture at the V&A and the Museum of London. Museum Archaeologist News Spring/Summer 2006.
Driscoll, S. T., 1998. Church Archaeology in Glasgow and the Kingdom of Strathclyde. Innes Review 49.2: 95-114.
ECMS = Allen, J., R. & Anderson, J., 1903. The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland. Balgavies: Pinkfoot Press (1993 reprint, 2 vols).
Forsyth, K., 1995. The Inscriptions on the Dupplin Cross: 237-44. In C. Bourke (ed.), From the Isles of the North. Belfast: HMSO.
Henderson, I., 1999. The Dupplin Cross: A Preliminary Consideration of its Art Historical Context: 161-77. In J. Hawkes and S. Mills (eds), Northumbria’s Golden Age. Stroud: Alan Sutton.
Henderson, G. & Henderson, I., 2004. The Art of the Picts, Sculpture and Metalwork in Early Medieval Scotland. London: Thames and Hudson.
Thomas, C., 1994. Christianity at Govan: but when?: 19-26. In Ritchie, A., (ed.). Govan and its Early Medieval Sculptures. Stroud: Alan Sutton.
Williams, A., Smyth, A. P., & Kirby, D. P., 1991. A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain, England, Scotland and Wales c. 500-c. 1050. London: Seaby.

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One Response to Constantine the Great – York's Roman Emperor (31 March – 29 Oct 2006, Yorkshire Museum, York, UK)

  1. Joop Weij says:

    Interesting review which points a lot to the exhibitiondesign. Alas to little information about f.i. the catalogue.

    I’m also curious if this exhibition has something common with the Constantine-exhibition 2007 in Trier.

    Still a pleasure to read this review.

    With greetings,

    Joop Weij,
    Draaibrug 38,
    4527 PC Aardenburg,
    The Netherlands