The 9th century church of Santa Prassede is dedicated to St Praxedes, the daughter of St Pudens, in whose house St Peter may have stayed when he was in Rome. A church has stood on this site since the late 4th century when it was one of the twenty-eight tituli, the first parish churches of Rome. According to legend, the Titulus Praxedis was built over the house where St Praxedes sheltered her fellow Christians who were in pursuit from persecution.
However, the church we see today was begun at the end of the 8th century by Pope Adrian I (r. 772-95) and completed by Pope Paschal I (r. 817-24). We now enter the church from via Santa Prassede, but it is worth visiting the original entrance in Via San Martino ai Monti which comprises two antique granite columns supporting a gable, and is known as a prothyrum. It leads, by means of a staircase, to what was once a quadriporticus and which now is a courtyard.
The nave is separated from the aisles by 16 ancient columns and 8 pillars. The eight frescoes, the work of several artists, were painted between 1594 and 1596 at the behest of the titular cardinal, Alessandro de’ Medici. The cycle, which illustrates the Passion of Christ, starts at the end of the nave on the left hand side and proceeds counter-clockwise. The two angels, who stand on fictive pedestals (decorated with the Medici coat of arms) to either side of each fresco, carry symbols or instruments relating to the event represented. There is a rather beautiful depiction of the Annunciation by Stefano Pieri on the counter-façade (the inside wall of the entrance). As all of the frescoes were realised during the papacy of Clement VIII (r. 1592-1605), it is the Aldobrandini (the family to which the pope belonged) coat of arms we see painted on the fictive pediment above the central door.
The mosaics in the apse, and on the triumphal arch, were created during the reign of Paschal I (817-24).
At the bottom of the apse, steps lead down to the confessio, where we find the relics of St Praxedes and St Pudentiana, which were brought here from the catacombs in 822. They were placed in an ancient sarcophagus, which is also said to contain the sponge, which St Praxedes is believed to have used to collect the blood of the martyrs, some of whose relics lie in the other three sarcophagi. One of the sarcophagi is decorated with a relief depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd and Jonah resting on the beach after his encounter with the whale.
The tiny Chapel of St Zeno was built by Pope Paschal I as a mausoleum for his mother, Theodora. The plan of the chapel, which was known in the middle-ages as Il Orto del Paradiso (the Garden of Paradise), resembles that of a cubiculum, a small room found in the catacombs.
A door leads to the Chapel of the Flagellation, so-called because of the column of oriental jasper, supposedly the one against which Christ was scourged. The column was brought to Rome in 1233 by Giovanni Colonna, titular cardinal of the church and papal legate to Constantinople.
On a pillar, opposite the entrance to the Chapel of St Zeno, is the funeral monument of Mons. Giovanni Battista Santoni. Most experts now agree that the portrait bust of the deceased is by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). The precocious sculptor, who happened to live very close to Santa Prassede, was no more than seventeen years old when he finished carving the bust. How much help the teenager received from his father Pietro, also a professional sculptor, we shall never know!
Across from the pillar, in a funerary chapel now used as a bookshop, is a beautiful monument to Alano Coetivy of Taillebour, titular cardinal of Santa Prassede from 1448-74. The cardinal lies asleep on his sarcophagus, while in the background we see, sculpted in high-relief, St Peter and St Paul. In the foreground, standing in small niches to either side, are St Praxedes and St Pudentiana. The work has been attributed to Andrea Bregno (1418-1506), the great Renaissance sculptor.
In the chapel at the end of the right aisle, is the tomb of Pantaleone Anchier de Troyes, titular cardinal of Santa Prassede from 1262 to 1286. He died on November 1st 1286, as the plaque above his tomb records. The cardinal was actually assassinated in this very chapel during a popular uprising. The monument has been attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio.
A 9th century stone plaque, which is embedded into the last pillar on the right hand side of the nave, commemorates the remains of the 2,300 martyrs, which Pope Paschal I ordered to be brought here from the catacombs. The simple floor tomb of Giovanni da Montopoli, which lies between the third and fourth pillars, has been dated to the late 13th century. The figure can be identified as a pilgrim from his staff and the two shells which decorate his hat and scrip.
Set into the floor, to the left of the entrance, is a fine example of a late medieval tomb, that of Giovanni Carbone. The deceased, dressed in armour, rests his head on a little pillow and holds down two puppies with his feet. His tomb tells us that he died in Rome on September 24th 1388.
At the foot of the left aisle, let into the wall, is the marble slab on which St Praxedes is said to have slept.