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.
A CHURCH FOR ALL AGES
Tradition holds that Pope Pius I (c. 142–c. 155) made the Pudens residence into a small church. Seventy years after Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313) ended the persecution of Christians, the Titulus Pudentianae was transformed into an imposing Christian basilica. Dedicatory inscriptions found in the church revealed that construction was financed by ‘Illiceus, Leopardus and the presbyter Maximus’, in the reign of Pope Siricius (384–99); decorations were completed during the Papacy of Pope St. Innocent I (401–17).
Excavations have revealed that in the second century thermal baths were built above St. Pudenziana’s original first-century Roman residence, and that it was into this structure that the fourth-century church was built. Although this discovery has been used to refute the church’s legendary origins, perhaps the Roman administration hoped to wipe out all traces of the early Christian cult by building a thermal institution over the site.
St. Pudenziana was rebuilt many times in the course of the centuries, and two of the most important medieval Popes contributed enduring elements. it is to Gregory VII (1073–85) that we owe the medieval door-frame (although some historians claim is was commissioned by Hadrian I in the eighth century), and Innocent III (1198–1216) contributed the Romanesque bell-tower.
In 1589 a drastic restoration was conducted upon the instructions of Cardinal Enrico Caetani, who ordered the medieval choir removed and imparted an overall late Renaissance aspect to the interior. The last touches of remodeling were carried out in 1870 by Cardinal Luciano Bonaparte, who is buried in the church.
The true glory of St. Pudenziana is its astonishing early fifth- (or perhaps late fourth-) century apsidal mosaic. There is nothing comparable to be seen in all of Rome. Tourists to Rome are accustomed to Byzantine-style mosaics – with their hieratic compositions against solid gold backgrounds – which dominated early Church art. But St. Pudenziana’s apse antedates the Byzantine influence, and offers a window into the Roman world through which Christianity entered.
Here is a scene out of pagan imperial Rome. The Saviour, dressed in golden Roman robes, sits upon a throne in the midst of his Apostles, who are dressed in the togas of Roman senators. against a background of imperial buildings, the patrician matrons Pudenziana and Prassede crown Peter and Paul with Hellenistic laurel wreaths. (Many art historians claim that the female figures represent the ‘Church of the Circumcision’, i.e. Jewish converts, and the ‘Church of the Gentiles’, rather than the sister-saints.)
The figures are highly individualized, the buildings are modelled with shadows and perspective, and the colours seem to be awash with the light and delicate tones of a huge watercolour painting. the ox representing the Evangelist Luke is so lifelike he could lean down and bite. This is the last gasp of naturalistic Roman art: nothing similar – in terms of perspective, colouring and portraiture – will be seen in Rome until the early Renaissance, which, of course, took its inspiration from classical art.
Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.