This monumental porphyry sarcophagus, in the Vatican Museums, is believed to have held the remains of Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who died circa 335 CE.
Helena was buried in the Imperial mausoleum at Tor Pignattara, between the via Prenestina and the via Labicana. In 1777 the sarcophagus was moved to the Vatican, where it was restored by Gaspare Sibilla and Giovanni Pierantoni. It was then mounted on four marble lions, the work of Francesco Antonio Franzoni, and set up in the Greek Cross Hall.
The sarcophagus is decorated with military scenes (Roman soldiers on horseback and barbarian prisoners), which has led scholars to deduce that it was originally made for a male member of the Imperial family, such as Helena's husband, Constantius Chlorus, or, more probably, Constantine himself.
The Greek Cross hall was designed and built by the Roman architect Michelangelo Simonetti (1731-87), at the behest of Pope Pius VI (r. 1775-1799).
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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