Ercole Sarti, Pope Sylvester I, oil on canvas, 149.8 x 97.7 cm, 1620-1625. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Ferrara. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0).
Pope Sylvester I was the bishop of Rome for twenty-one years, from 31 January 314 until his death in the year 335. Little is known of his life, and what little is recorded of his pontificate has been preserved in the seventh to eighth century Roman papal chronicle, the Liber Pontificalis. He was the leader of the Catholic church during a significant turning point in the history of the Western church, as he is credited with the conversion of Constantine the Great. Already in 313 Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, a proclamation that promoted religious toleration for Christianity within the Roman Empire, foreshadowing a period of synergy between Church and State. Sarti painted this large canvas for the church of San Silvestro, Ferrara. The work was completed between the years 1620–1625 and was originally accommodated in the sacristy. In the work, Sylvester stands dignified but with movement, as if advancing toward the viewer with an extended foot and an outstretched hand. The lifted hand allows an intricate gold mantum to drape delicately over his shoulder, on show to the viewer with three saints embroidered upon it. The tall and weighty papal tiara is adorned with all kinds of gems, intricate and detailed, almost like a piece of architecture. Sarti infuses the figure with a communicative energy, together with an apparently humble expression, with a slightly bowed head. Although the Pope stands still, the gesture of reaching out extends the conventional blessing to suggest a degree of psychological intimacy with the viewer, where the viewer can imagine him advancing to help with a personal salvific salutation. In the nineteenth century the canvas entered the Costabili collection where it was described by the Ferrarese Camillo Laderchi as “a picture that measures up with the best works by Scarsellino”.