HISTORY OF THE SET
The History of Constantine the Great was the second of Peter Paul Ruben's tapestry designs after the much woven Decius Mus series. Louis XIII of France commissioned the set 1622 and the artist supplied it to the Paris Saint-Marcel atelier of Marc de Comans and François de la Planche in late 1622 and early 1623 (The Labarum sketch was supplied in 1623 and is today in the collection of H.E.M. Benn, Haslemere). It is interesting to note that Rubens used the Decius Mus designs as basis to many of the Constantine panels, but he further developed the ideas and incorporated Italian renaissance elements (D. Heinz, Europäische Tapisseriekunst des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts , Vienna, 1995, p. 45). The Paris workshop must have considered this set of twelve tapestries very important as it was repeatedly woven with a high metal-thread content in the boutique d'or in the 1620s. It is believed that in all at least nine weavings were undertaken in Paris in the 17th Century. The editio princeps, consisting of seven panels and excluding The Labarum, was woven by 1625 and presented by Louis XIII to cardinal Barberini when he left Paris. These tapestries are today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (D. Dubon, Tapestries from the Samuel H. Kress Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art , Aylesbury, 1964), while further sets are at the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and the Mobilier National, Paris.
Flemish versions of this set after Rubens are relatively rare. Jan II Raes, privileged in 1613, is known to have woven a set of this series. He was one of the eight most important weavers of Brussels in the early 17th century and became burgomaster of Brussels 1634 - 35 and died before May 1643. He is known to have supervised several sets after Rubens, such as The Life of Decius Mus and the Triumph of the Eucharist.
The history of Constantine is shrouded in clouds of mystery and legends, which even started to emerge in the first years after his death. Even the contemporary biographer, Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote his History of the Church during the lifetime of Constantine and the Life of Constantine twenty years later, could not avoid including incidents that are today believed to be without historical basis.
Constantine was born the illegitimate son of a distinguished Roman officer, Constantius I, in Yugoslavia. He rose in the military ranks and became Caesar of his own provinces and the East. He attained the title of Augustus and after defeating Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in 312, became sole Emperor of the West with Licinius reigning in the East. The following year the Edict of Milan officially proclaimed religious tolerance for Christianity. Constantine attained full rule over the Roman Empire after defeating Licinius in 323, and he moved the capital to Constantinople in 325. He died after being taken ill on a war campaign in Persia in 337, just after he was baptized.
This tapestry commemorates Constantine ordering the use of the monogram of Christ on all shields of his soldiers and on the labarum in battle, after a dream in which he was directed to do so before the battle of the Milvian Bridge. (Dubon, op. cit., pp. 33 - 36)