Art & Culture (le cose belle)

Santa Prassede

While Culture Week is a great chance to take advantage of free museums entrance, why not stop at a church in between? Santa Prassede is a short walk from the Colosseum and Forum areas.

The entrance to the church, just in front of Santa Maria Maggiore, could easily be missed, as you do not see much of the church at all from it, you enter from the side and the rest of the church is surrounded by other more modern buildings.

The church, as it stands now, was commissioned by Pope Hadrian around the year 780, and built on top of the remains of a 5th century structure designed to house the bones of Saint Praxedes and Saint Prudentiana, the daughters of Saint Prudens, who were murdered for providing Christian burial for early martyrs. The basilica was enlarged and decorated by Pope Paschal I c. 822. 

Beautiful mosaics cover much of the church and they were commissioned by Pope Paschal (r. 817-824) who was at the forefront of the Carolingian Renaissance started by Charlemagne with the goal of returning to the foundations of Christianity, theologically and artistically. Paschal hired a group of professional mosaicists to work on the apse, the apsidal arch and the triumphal arch.

In the apse, Jesus is in the center, flanked by Sts. Peter and Paul who present Prassede and Pudenziana to God. On the far left is Paschal, with the squared halo of the living, presenting a model of the church as an offering to Jesus. Below runs an inscription of Paschal’s, hoping that this offering will be sufficient to secure his place in heaven.

On the apsidal arch are twelve men on each side, holding wreaths of victory, welcoming the souls into heaven. Above them are symbols of the four Gospel writers: Mark, the lion; Matthew, the man; Luke, the bull; and John, the eagle, as they surround a lamb on a throne, a symbol of Christ’s eventual return to Earth.

The real gem of the church is in the Zeno Chapel, just to the left as you walk in, which Pope Paschal built for his mother Theodora. Even in the steady light there today the gold mosaics shimmer as you move around the tiny space. Just imagine what they would have looked like only light by flickering candles…  Also housed in the chapel is the pillar of flagellation that Christ was supposedly chained to before his crucifixion. It was reportedly brought to Rome by Saint Helena, Constantine I’s mother, after a pilgrimage in which she also collected pieces of the true cross that are now housed in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, also in Rome.

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