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Sylvester

(d. 335)


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(d. 335)

pope. The son of a Roman called Rufinus, Sylvester became bishop of Rome in 314, soon after the Edict of Milan recognized Christianity, ended persecution against it and tolerated all religions. Surprisingly little is known of him, but legends abound and were very influential in the Middle Ages. Sylvester was represented by legates at a synod of Arles against the Donatists and in 325 at the Council of Nicea. The Lateran palace was given to him by Constantine and this became the cathedral church of Rome; he also built other churches in Rome; probably the first churches at St Peter's, Holy Cross, and St Laurence-outside-the-walls. He was buried in a church which he built at the cemetery of Priscilla; but in 761 his relics were translated to the church of ‘St Silvester in capite’ which is the church assigned to the English.

Some of the principal but unhistorical legends about Sylvester include his supposed baptism of Constantine (in reality Constantine was baptized only on his death-bed after the death of Sylvester), his curing him of leprosy at the Lateran Baptistery, and his receiving the forgery called the ‘Donation of Constantine’ which give considerable temporal power to the papacy, especially in Italy, and purported to confer on him the primacy over other patriarchs. In the development of these legends the character of Constantine was also transformed into that of an ideal, but quite unhistorical, Christian emperor. These legends have considerably influenced the portrayal of Sylvester in art; his principal emblems are a chained dragon (or bull) and a tiara; the principal scene represented is that of the baptism of Constantine. Feast: in the West, 31 December; in the East, 2 January.

L. Duchesne, Liber Pontificalis, i. 170–201;W. Levison, ‘Konstantinische Schenkung und Silvester-Legende’ in Miscellanea Francesca Ehrle, ii (1924), 159–247;N. H. Baynes, Constantine the Great and the Christian Church (1929).

Subjects: Christianity.


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