EARLY CHRISTIAN SCULPTOR, Italian
(active mid-4th century in Rome)

Sarcophagus of Helena

330s
Porphyry
Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican

This monumental red porphyry sarcophagus is believed to have held the remains of Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who died around 335 A.D. and was buried in the Imperial mausoleum at Tor Pignattara, between the via Prenestina and the via Labicana outside Rome. In 1777 it was brought into the Vatican and restored.

The coffin is carved with military scenes with Roman soldiers on horseback and barbarian prisoners. On the lid of the sarcophagus figures of cupids and victories hold garlands, while on the very top there are two lions either side of the ridge - one sleeping, the other lying down. This very military decoration, not really suitable for a female burial, has led scholars to suppose that the sarcophagus was originally made for a male member of the Imperial family, such as Helena's husband, Constantius Chlorus or, more probably, Constantine himself.