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. PRASSEDE – Courage and Conversion
Just as the Titulus Pudentianae marked the site of Pudens’ and Pudenziana’s early centre for clandestine Christian worship, the nearby Titulus Praxedis identified another place where Pudenziana and Prassede collected the remains of Christian martyrs in the secret well.
The church is located on a small street (Via S. Prassede) on the right side (approaching from St. Pudenziana) of the great basilica of St. Maria maggiore. Entering St. Prassede through an inconspicuous side door, the pilgrim finds many references to the courageous sister-martyrs. In the centre of the nave, a porphyry disc marks the site of the martyrs’ well, while the sisters’ relics, together with one of the famous sponges, are preserved in an early Christian sarcophagus in the crypt below the high altar. To the right of the main entrance, fixed into the wall, is a slab of marble upon which St. Prassede allegedly slept, with a statue of the saint in front.
Sts. Pudenziana and Prassede appear in the crypt (a ninth-century fresco), while a large oil painting behind the main altar by Domenico Muratori (1730) portrays St. Prassede Gathering the Blood of the Martyrs. in the apse and triumphal arch mosaics, and in those above the door and inside the chapel of Zeno, the Roman matron-saints have been transformed into Byzantine princesses in jewelled robes.
As in the case of St. Pudenziana, it was Pope Siricius (384–99) who commissioned a Christian basilica to be constructed over St. Prassede’s house church. The structure was renovated by Pope Hadrian I (772–95), and Pope Paschal I (817–24) rebuilt the church, apparently orienting it in a different direction, as seen today, with its three naves separated by ancient columns, and the profusion of mosaics covering the apse, triumphal arch, and right-aisle chapel.
And nothing could be more unlike the early Christian apse of St. Pudenziana than St. Prassede’s ninth-century mosaics – often described as the most important Byzantine monument in Rome. Here the figures are frontal and one-dimensional, the composition rigidly hieratic, and the background flat, with stylized trees and wavy clouds. But what a wonderful moment in the Roman school of Byzantine art! In the apse, on each side of Christ the Redemptor, Sts. Pudenziana and Prassede, dressed in Oriental robes, are being presented by Sts. Peter and Paul, while Paschal I (his square halo indicates he was still alive at the time and destined for sainthood) hold up the model of his beloved church. In the triumphal arch, among an opulence of saints, Apostles, martyrs and angels, all proceeding to the heavenly Jerusalem, St. Prassede and St. Peter (with Pudenziana and Paul on the other side) stand side by side. On the apsidal arch, the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse offer crowns to the lamb of God above.
The chapel of Zeno, commissioned by Paschal I as a tomb for his mother Theodora but named after a Roman martyr whose relics Paschal had placed here, is even more splendid. In fact, throughout the Middle Ages the sanctuary was referred to as ‘the Garden of Paradise’ by native Romans and foreign pilgrims alike. All the walls, vaults and ceilings are covered with bright and lively mosaics, glittering and glowing in the intermittently illuminated spaces. There is a dazzling profusion of attenuated bodies of angels and saints, liturgical symbols, and in every free space, charming flowers and animals. One of the most appealing mosaics, in a lunette to the left of the entrance, shows heads of the Virgin, the bejewelled and crowned Sts. Pudenziana and Prassede, and Theodora with her square halo.
Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.