The first challenge is to actually find this church. It is just a stone’s throw away from the Santa Maria Maggiore, yet it is still very easy to miss. The Santa Prassede is somewhat hidden between other buildings and the church’s campanile is completely invisible. One enters the church through a side entrance in the Via Santa Prassede. This entrance is on the eastern side of the church. The original entrance to the complex is more to the south, in the Via San Martino ai Monti. Here one can still see a portico with a brick barrel vault, next to a pizzeria offering halal food. The iron gates are always closed, but if a visitor could enter through here, he would first enter an atrium in front of the church and then the church itself. Atriums are a feature of many medieval churches, but in Rome most have been demolished in later centuries. The best surviving example can be found at the church of San Clemente.
I have previously discussed that Prassede – Praxedis in Latin – and her sister Santa Pudenziana probably never existed. The church dedicated to Praxedis was founded in the ninth century by Pope Paschalis I. There may certainly have been an older predecessor to the present church, but the new church was not built on the same location. Paschalis was a busy little bee during his pontificate, which lasted from 817 to 824. He was also responsible for restoring the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere and the Santa Maria in Domnica, and is portrayed in the apse mosaics of all three churches. Paschalis is credited not just with rebuilding the Santa Prassede, but also with moving the remains of 2.300 martyrs from the catacombs outside Rome to this new church. This is commemorated on a tablet in the church. The reason for removing so many relics from their original locations was the fact that the Roman countryside had been overrun by brigands and it was no longer safe for pilgrims to travel there. Most places of worship outside the city were closed down and the relics moved, the important basilicas of San Paolo, San Lorenzo and Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura being notable exceptions.
The church was restored and altered many times throughout its history. Not all of its constituent parts are old. For instance, the coffered wooden ceiling was only added in 1868 and the Cosmatesque floor fifty years later, in 1918. The church is most famous for its wonderful mosaics.
Triumphal arch and apse mosaic
The ninth century Byzantine-style mosaics in the Santa Prassede have come down to us almost intact. First, there are mosaics on the triumphal arch separating the nave from the sanctuary. The lower part of the triumphal arch mosaic was removed during a sixteenth century renovation, for which the church’s titular priest, Saint Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584), was responsible. His architect, Martino Longhi the Elder (1534-1591), added two reliquary cupboards and little balconies on both sides of the arch, which regretfully involved destroying parts of the mosaics.
What is left is still quite impressive. The work was done during Paschalis’ pontificate and was clearly inspired by the Book of Revelation. In the centre, we see Heavenly Jerusalem depicted as a walled city, of which the gates are guarded by angels. Christ and the apostles are already in the city, as are the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and Praxedis. More people are approaching from the left and right. The group on the right is led by Saints Petrus (Peter) and Paulus (Paul). Note that the triumphal arch is bended backwards in the centre, leaving a gap between the arch and the ceiling, the result of poor construction work.
Then there is the impressive apse mosaic, also from the reign of Pope Paschalis I. He can himself be seen on the left of the mosaic, holding a miniature model of the church in his hands. Paschalis has a square nimbus, indicating that he was alive was the mosaic was made. Above him in the palm tree is a phoenix, symbolising resurrection. It is difficult to take pictures of the mosaic, as the view is partly blocked by the huge ciborium or baldacchino, which dates from the eighteenth century. Christ is at the centre of the mosaic, descending a stairway made of clouds. The Hand of God is above him. He is flanked by Saint Paul on the left and Saint Peter on the right.
The two women in the scene are the sisters Praxedis and Pudentiana. They look quite similar and it is difficult to tell who is Praxedis and who Pudentiana. The woman on the left is most likely Praxedis, as she is standing next to Pope Paschalis who is holding a miniature version of the church, her church. In the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Cecilia is also positioned between Saint Paul and the pope. Note that while Praxedis is on the left side from the visitor’s point of view, she is actually on the right side of Christ. A position on the right hand side of The Saviour would be a position of honour. On the extreme right of the conch is a man dressed as a deacon, usually identified as Saint Zeno. Although a famous chapel in the church was dedicated to him, it is not clear who he was (see below). Just above the epigraph, there is the obligatory row of sheep with the Lamb of God in the middle.
The mosaics on the arch above the conch bear resemblance to those in the Santi Cosma e Damiano, which are some 300 years older. We see scenes from the Book of Revelation (see above). The Lamb of God is in the centre on a throne, between seven candlesticks. On both sides of the candlesticks are two angels and two figures symbolising the four Evangelists. On the mosaic in the Santi Cosma e Damiano, only the eagle for John and the man for Matthew remain, but here we see all four, including a lion on the far left for Mark and a bull on the far right for Luke. The Evangelists are holding their respective Gospels. Below them are the 24 elders from the Book of Revelation, 12 on either side, which have also survived intact, unlike those at the Santi Cosma e Damiano.
The Chapel of Saint Zeno
Pope Paschalis had this chapel built as a funerary chapel for his mother Theodora. Yet it is dedicated to Saint Zeno, who is otherwise unknown. He is definitely not Saint Zeno of Verona. The chapel itself is a wonderful piece of art, with the walls and ceiling almost completely covered in glittering mosaics. Above the entrance to the chapel is an elaborate mosaic showing the faces of 24 people. All but the two in the lower left and right corners – which depict Pope Paschalis and one of his successors and were added in the nineteenth century – are original. Most of the faces are inside tondi in one of the two ‘horse shoes’ inside the mosaic. The smaller horse shoe has the Virgin Mary in the centre, flanked by two men – one of them possibly Zeno. The other figures are all female saints. The larger horse shoe shows Christ in the centre, flanked by Peter, Paul and the rest of the apostles. The figures in the top left and top right corners are thought to be Moses and Elijah (cf. Santa Maria in Domnica). The smaller horse shoe surrounds a cantharus, an ancient vase thought to be containing Theodora’s remains.
Inside the chapel, one is easily struck by the beautiful ceiling. It shows a tondo with Christ’s image, that is held by four angels. The angels seem to be standing on the columns in the four corners of the chapel.
And there is a lot more to see on the walls (see the slideshow below). Saints Peter and Paul are above the entrance and they can be seen standing next to an empty throne with a cross on it, the so-called hetoimasia. On the right wall, we see the apostles John the Evangelist, Andrew and James. On the left wall, Saints Agnes, Pudentiana and Praxedis are portrayed as Byzantine princesses.
The central wall features the Virgin Mary to the left of the window and Saint John the Baptist to the right. Here we also find the altar of the chapel. The altar mosaic was made in the late thirteenth century, so it is not as old as the other mosaics in the chapel. It features the Madonna and Child and Saints Praxedis and Pudentiana again. The Christ Child holds out a scroll with the words EGO SVM LVX MVNDI, “I am the light of the world”. These are words taken from the Gospel of John (John 8:12: “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.“”).
Over the doorway in the left wall is another interesting mosaic. It has two registers. The lower register depicts Paschalis’ mother Theodora. She has a square blue nimbus, so she was alive when her son commissioned the mosaic. Theodora is labelled THEODO[RA] EPISCOPA. This does not mean she was a bishop herself, rather that she was the mother of one, i.e. Paschalis. The other women in the lower register are Saint Praxedis, the Virgin Mary and Saint Pudentiana. The top register has the Lamb of God flanked by four deer. On the far right, one can see a fragment of the Harrowing of Hell. The mosaic was likely much larger once.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 171;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 228-229;
- Santa Prassede on Churches of Rome Wiki.
Update 26 February 2017: text and pictures have been updated.