The Marvelous Mausoleum of Costanza

There are several treasures in the Eternal City that stop you in your tracks and make your jaw drop: the Pantheon, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel are just a few examples that quickly come to mind. I’d put the Mausoleum of Cstanza on that short and very distinguished list. This marvelous mausoleum is part of a large religious complex that also includes the church of Saint Agnes “Outside the Walls” (more on that in a future post).

Santa Costanza is a 4th-century church, originally built by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great for his daughter Constantina (Costanza) who died in 354 C.E. and was later (like her father) declared a saint, although it appears the legends associated with her were indeed only myths. The fact that the mausoleum was also associated with Saint Agnes — and lies over catacombs dedicated to that saint — may have added to the veneration of Constantina.

The mausoleum is unusual in that it is circular, and inside there is a central dome surrounded by a round ambulatory.

Exterior of Santa Constanza
Exterior of Santa Costanza

The ambulatory, which runs on the “outside” of the church, is separated from the round center (where the altar is located) by 12 arches supported by double columns.

The beautiful arches that surround the altar
The beautiful arches that surround the altar

It is breathtaking. Trust me, my pitiful photos do not even begin to do it justice. The ceiling of the curved ambulatory is covered with the most gorgeous, ancient mosaics that show the fascinating transition from the world of the pagan to that of Christianity.

The circular, curved ambulatory, covered in mosaics
The circular, curved ambulatory, covered in mosaics

In the center, your eye is drawn up to the faded, painted dome, surrounded by 12 simple arched windows (sadly, the original mosaics were lost in a restoration attempt centuries ago).

The dome of Santa Constanza
The dome of Santa Costanza
Dome detail
Dome detail

Today, the original sarcophagus of Constantina is in the Vatican Museums, but a replica of that red porphyry masterpiece rests here.

Sarcophagus
Sarcophagus

Mosaics depicting Christ fill several niches.

Niche mosaic detail
Niche mosaic detail

But, it is the earlier mosaics of the ambulatory that take your breath away … more on that on my next post!

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