Constantine and a ‘Vandalized’ Venus in Trier

Porta Nigra
Porta Nigra, Trier. Photo: TMK, October 2007.

I was in Trier a couple of weeks ago to see the Constantine the Great exhibition, which is one of the main events that make up the European Capital of Culture 2007. The exhibition spreads out across three different venues and presents some very interesting objects from museums across Europe. The style of the exhibition is in the vein of what I could call the German tradition of encyclopedic exhibitions, as it aims to cover all aspects of the Constantinian age, from technology, warfare, pottery, portraiture, coinage to the Church, et cetera. This is also reflected in the exhibition catalogue, which is a bargain at only € 25 (Demandt & Engemann 2007). So this is one of those rare opportunities to see an enormous range of late antique artefacts in the same place at the same time (the exhibition runs until 4 November). However, other aspects of late antiquity such as religious violence and intolerance were not much in focus here, excerpt for the usual remarks about the pre-Constantinian persecutions of Christians, in this case staged dramatically with visual projections of flames! While religious violence and intolerance can’t be said to be characteristic of the reign of Constantine, they certainly become major themes over the course of the 4th and 5th centuries. As the exhibition covers so much else that isn’t exclusively Constantinian, I felt this was a missed opportunity.

P1150659Paradoxically, the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, one of three exhibition’s three venues, holds several artefacts that are relevant to discussions of religious violence and ‘iconoclasm’ in late antiquity. These include the remains of a statue of Venus that you see on the right. It comes from the Church of St Matthew (St Matthias) in Trier, where churchgoers would throw rocks at it (Gramaccini 1996: 41; Wightman 1970: 229). The statue was accompanied by an inscription in both Latin and Gothic that informs us that it was exhibited for ridicule by St Eucharius. This part of the statue’s afterlife is usefully explained in the didactic text, but the statue is not part of the Constantine exhibition. It would also have been interesting to use the very interesting material from the sanctuary at Altbachtal in Trier to show how pagan religious sites were ‘secularized’ during late antiquity. Occasionally, this was a violent process, as Eberhard Sauer (among others) has shown in his studies of the decline of paganism in the northwestern provinces (1996; 2003).

The power of images and the responses that they create are major themes in contemporary society. Nonetheless, violent responses to artefacts are rarely noted in archaeological museums. As such, the Constantine exhibition in Trier was no exception. But it’s certainly worth visiting for anyone interested in late antique art and archaeology.

Demandt, A. & J. Engemann (eds.) 2007. Konstantin der Grosse. Ausstellungskatalog. Trier: Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier.
Gramaccini, N. 1996. Mirabilia. Das Nachleben antiker Statuen vor der Renaissance. Mainz: Philip von Zabern.
Sauer, E. 1996. The End of Paganism in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire. The Example of the Mithras Cult. Oxford: BAR International Series.
Sauer, E. 2003. The Archaeology of Religious Hatred in the Roman and Early Medieval World. Stroud: Tempus.
Wightman, E.M. 1970. Roman Trier and the Treveri. London: Rupert Hart-Davis.

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