Prose for Van Orley: Vamba Sherif

Authors on paintings. BOZAR asked 5 writers to choose a work from the exhibition Bernard van Orley. Brussels and the Renaissance and inhabit one of its characters. Vamba Sherif chose The Dubbing of Saint Martin by Emperor Constantine.

© Nelson-Atkins Media Services / Jamison Miller
© Nelson-Atkins Media Services / Jamison Miller

The Dubbling of Saint Martin

Call me Constantine, to spare you the lengthy names and titles I accumulated over the years. Historians compete in their attempts to shower me with praises, none of which accurately described me. In truth, I was a simple man who believed in bringing structure in a world of chaos. I rose to power not only due to my parents, with my father once being a Caesar and my mother an empress, but due to my cunnings and insight into how the Roman empire worked.

I was a man of many visions. But for most of you I am known for a singular vision. On a clear  day, I was supposed to have seen a sentence written across the bluish sky: In hoc signo vinces – In this sign we shall conquer. Of course, I was one of the firsts to recognize the power of the  cross, even without the vision: the idea that one man’s suffering could represent that of all humanity. I was envious of Jesus Christ, because he was elevated to such heights long after his death. We Roman emperors were worshipped out of fear. I survived many attempts on my life. And here was a man whose death symbolized the death of humanity.

The sword I have in my hand, fashioned by one of best smiths in my empire, is not meant to cut you down. It is meant to knight this very handsome, almost effeminate young man, Martinus, a roman soldier, whom you would one day declare a saint for sharing half of his cloak with a beggar.

But look at the detailed work of my attire, the painstaking efforts by the artist to elevate me to the level of an ethereal being. It must have cost him months of hard work; and every time he painted the background, the people who surrounded me, he must have felt like a visionary, a man acutely aware of his own powers, like I had been aware of mine the day I became emperor. The sheer pleasure is unraveled by anything.

I felt those same powers when I walked the streets of the city I named after myself, Constantinople. This brings me to one of the most detailed but less known of my visions. In fact it was a dream. In it, I saw my city being conquered and populated by people with a different symbol: the crescent. Those people painted over the churches with work of their own and renamed places, including my city. It’s now called Istanbul, a name that does disservice to my efforts.

You must know the crescent, for the people it represents now roam my city and yours  as well. You must have robbed shoulders with some of them, befriended or clashed with them.

Sometimes I wonder what I might have done had these two symbols existed in my time and I had been given the opportunity to choose one of them. Which symbol would I have chosen, and what would that have meant for the world?


Vamba Sherif (1973) was born in Liberia and spent his childhood in Kuwait and Syria. He has written a variety of novels, including The Black NapoleonThe Kingdom of Sebah and The Land of my Fathers. His work is published in several languages, including Dutch, French, German and Spanish. He is also known for the anthology Zwart. Afro-Europese literatuur uit de Lage Landen (Black. Afro-European Literature from the Low Countries).

See also