Even today a visitor to the churches of Rome can step into rooms where, two millennia before our times, the first Christians professed their new faith and often awaited suffering and death.
St. Maria in Trastevere has two rivals for the honour of ‘oldest church in Rome’. For years, the churches of St. Pudenziana and St. Prassede were believed to be the sites of Rome’s earliest centres of Christian worship. this is not surprising, since tradition holds that St. Peter himself lived and taught in the original house congregations located there. In fact, the domestic churches were the tituli of two of the Apostle’s first converts.
FEARLESSNESS AND FIDELITY
Around the year 50 AD, the Christian religion was outlawed and its followers were often martyred after the most atrocious tortures. In those days, Senator Pudens, an early convert to Christianity, had his residence in Rome’s Vicus Patricius on the Esquiline Hill. Here, according to tradition, Pudens had given shelter to St. Peter himself for seven years. After Pudens’ martyrdom, Christians continued to gather here, ever more frequently and numerously, under the supervision of Pudens’ faithful daughter Pudenziana.
This courageous Roman matron had a secret task. Together with her pious sister Prassede (Praxedes), she crept to spots where Christians had been martyred to collect their remains and sponge up their blood. The two women then deposited these in wells on Pudens’ estate. Legend tells us that Prassede witnessed the slaughter of twenty-three Christian faithful in her own home, and that she and Pudenziana were both martyred soon after.
As usual, modern guidebooks point out that the above-related story has little historical basis. Or, at least, that archaeology and research cast doubt on any relationship between the legend and the site of churches now dedicated to the sister-saints. However, the force of tradition is still strong in this church.
The original tituli were named Pudentianae and Praxedis. In the Catacomb of Priscilla a plaque commemorates the burial of the Senator Pudens, who was mentioned by St. Paul in his second letter to Timothy.
ST. PUDENZIANA – The Apostle’s Memory
The church of St. Pudenziana is located on the Esquiline Hill, on what was the Vicus Patricius (now Via Urbana), a street of patrician residences in classical times. The church is now below street level, and the first approach is often disappointing. Form the outside only the Romanesque door-frame and bell-tower suggest the building’s ancient origins. over the main entrance, a charming sculptured frieze depicts St. Pastor, Senator Pudens, Pudenziana and Prassede. From their eleventh-century lunettes, the wide-eyed sister-saints exhibit their collecting urns.
Inside the church, at the end of the left nave, is a chapel dedicated to St. Peter. There is a marble inscription on the left wall which informs us that: ‘this house was the first to give hospitality to St. Peter.’ Part of a wooden altar, where St. Peter allegedly celebrated the Eucharist under Pudens’ roof, is now enclosed in the chapel’s marble altar. an unbroken tradition links this chapel to an oratory, long since disappeared, built in the fifth century in Peter’s memory.
In St. Pudenziana there is still much to remind the visitor of the First Apostle’s presence – and of the courage and faith of Pudens and his family. Over the altar in St. Peter’s chapel, Giovanni Battista della Porta has sculpted the scene of Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter (1596). From here, a side door leads to the so-called Marian Oratory, where faded eleventh-century frescoes of Paul preaching, the baptism of Pudenziana’s brothers Novatus and Timothy, and Pudenziana with Prassede and the Virgin are faintly visible.
On the church’s back walls, unkown sixteenth-century artists have portrayed St. Peter baptizing Pudens, and Pudens welcoming Sts. Peter and Paul. Dome frescoes, executed by Cristoforo Roncalli in 1588, show Sts. Peter, Paul, Pudens, Pudenziana, Prassede, Timothy and Novatus.
Finally, towards the front of the left aisle is the well into which, tradition claims, Sts. Pudenziana and Prassede placed the remains of Christian martyrs. The sisters are also depicted in a chapel towards the back, painted by an anonymous sixteenth-century Tuscan artist: Prassede is shown gathering the martyrs’ blood, as Pudenziana places a severed head in the well.
Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.