Cathedral Museum (Museum am Dom)

Constantine ceiling painting

A unique work of Late Antique art awaits you at the Cathedral Museum in Trier. Found under Trier Cathedral, the ceiling murals were recovered from a depth of over three metres and then, over a ten year period, reassembled like a puzzle from more than 30,000 fragments. They originate from a lavishly designed residential palace that was demolished around 335 AD when the early Christian church complex was significantly expanded.

During excavation work in the centre of the cathedral in 1945/46, fragments of an ancient rectangular plaster ceiling from a sizeable residence were discovered approx. 3.5 metres below the present church floor by archaeologist Dr. Theodor K. Kempf.

Earlier archaeological work by cathedral chaplain Johann Nikolaus von Wilmowsky in 1843 and museum director Johann Wiegand in 1906 had previously revealed fragments of painted plaster. However, it was Theodor K. Kempf who first recognised the scale of this discovery. He salvaged the ceiling, which was in many thousands of fragments, and began the process of assembling it together with the restorer P. Welter. The first 6 paintings were presented to the public in 1951.

During this initial excavation period, Kempf only explored the northern half of the Late Antique room, consequently the actual dimensions of the space, and the number of ceiling murals were as yet unknown. It was only in 1967/68 that the southern half was uncovered and the remains of the paintings hidden here were made accessible.

The ceiling murals have been on display in a dedicated room in theCathedral Museum Trier since 1988. For conservation reasons, the paintings are mounted on walls and not the ceiling. In 1993, the assembly and conservation of the so-called “diagonal panels”was completed, which are also on display in the museum together with a reconstruction of the ceiling substructure.

But what do the ceiling paintings illustrate?

Depicted in chessboard-like alternation are seven flying pairs of winged gods, Eros and Psyche, and seven life-size bust portraits (three philosophers or poets and four busts of women). The image of a woman in the centre occupies a special position and is interpreted as having portrait features. It is believed to be of Maxima Fausta, who became the wife of Emperor Constantine in 307 AD and who was put to death for adultery in 326 AD. Grounds for this identification include the position of the painting on the ceiling and the period hairstyle of the sitter. The personifications and depictions accompanying Maxima Fausta illustrate wellbeing, education and wealth as an expression of the golden age of prosperity (“felicitas temporum”) being promoted at the imperial court.

The Trier ceiling paintings are of a quality that far exceeds that of other Late Antique paintings, which have survived elsewhere. The complete nature of the find makes it an important example of Late Antique art, which few other monuments are equal to.

Literature: Weber, Winfried: Constantinische Deckengemälde aus dem römischen Palast unter dem Dom, 4th edition, 2000.

Text: © Anna Hoppe

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