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 mosaic in the apse was created during the papacy of Paschal I (817-24). In the centre, against a background of the ‘clouds of heaven’, stands Christ, his right arm raised with the palm outwards to reveal the wound of his crucifixion. He grasps a scroll in his left hand and above his head we see the hand of God bestowing a crown. Christ is flanked by St Peter and St Paul, who embrace St Prassede and her sister, St Pudentiana. The two female saints have their hands hidden, a reference to an ancient custom of covering the hands in the presence of the emperor when receiving or giving gifts. On the far left, Pope Paschal I, wearing a white pallium, holds a model of the church. On his feet he sports an elegant pair of campagi, a type of Episcopal sandal. The pope has a square nimbus to indicate that he was alive when the image was made. The figure on the far right may be St Zeno. The seven figures are, in turn, flanked by two palm trees, symbols of paradise and immortality. Perched in the tree on the left, on an extra-long branch, is a phoenix, an ancient symbol of birth and rebirth.
The upper and lower part of the mosaic is separated by a blue band, a common symbol of baptism and here inscribed JORDANES. In the centre of the lower section is the Agnus Dei standing on a small mound from which spout the four rivers of Paradise. The Agnus Dei is joined by twelve sheep/apostles, which emerge from the cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
The mosaics on the apsidal arch illustrate the Book of Revelation. In the centre of the arch, in a blue medallion, a lamb sits on a bejewelled throne under which there is a book with seven seals. The lamb represents Christ Resurrected, who has the sole power to open the seals and reveal God’s plan of salvation. The medallion is flanked by seven lamps or the ‘seven churches of Asia’. These, in turn, are flanked by four angels and representations of the four Evangelists. Under the latter we see twenty-four elderly men dressed in fine white linen with their hands covered. Who they represent is not clear.
In the centre of the triumphal arch is a gem-encrusted, turreted enclosure, which represents the celestial city of Jerusalem. The city houses Christ, flanked by two angels, and, at a lower level, St John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary and St Praxedes. At either side, a line of apostles and saints, their hands veiled, offer a crown to Christ as a sign of his Divinity. At the far left stands Moses, in white and holding a tablet, while the prophet Elijah stands at the far right, accompanied by an angel wearing a red tunic and holding a book and a sceptre.
The city gates are open, but guarded by two angels and outside the walls crowd the elect, who seek admission. The lower register of the arch is filled with a multitude of figures wearing white gowns and waving palms, participants in the Resurrection of Christ. A good part of this section of the mosaic was destroyed towards the end of the 16th century when the reliquaries and balconies were installed. The monogram of Pope Paschal I adorns the centre of both the apsidal and the triumphal arch.
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, in the church of Santa Prassede, was built by Pope Paschal I (r. xxx) 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.
The ceiling is decorated with an image of Christ Pantokrator held up by four angels. On the inside wall of the entrance is a depiction of the Etimasia or preparation for the Second Coming. St Peter and St Paul stand, in waiting, to either side of an empty throne adorned with a gold cross.
Moving clockwise round the chapel, the second wall portrays three female saints, Agnes, Pudentiana and Praxedes. All three are bearing crowns in their veiled hands. The niche at the bottom is divided into two sections. In the upper part we see the Agnus Dei astride a mound from which flow the four rivers of paradise. Four deer are quenching their thirst from the water. In the lower part we see images of Theodora, the Virgin Mary, St Praxedes and St Pudentiana. Theodora is identified as ‘EPISCOPA’, the word for a female bishop, which has led to all manner of speculation. On the inside of the arch is a rare depiction of the Anastasis (the Harrowing of Hell), an apocryphal event in which Christ, following his resurrection, breaks down the gates of Hell to release Adam and Eve and other major figures from the Old Testament.
At the top of the back wall is a depiction of the Deisis (a prayer or supplication), in which the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist act as intercessors for humanity, while Christ as judge is symbolised by the light which enters through the window. The small apse is decorated with a mosaic from a later period, perhaps the 13th century. The Virgin and Child are flanked by the two sister saints.
On the fourth wall St John the Evangelist holds his gospel while St Andrew and St James hold scrolls. All three have their hands covered. In the lunette at the bottom Christ is giving a blessing to two figures, one of which may be St Zeno, given the chapel’s dedication.
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 San Zenone, 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. 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, the great Renaissance sculptor.
In the chapel at the end of the right aisle, is the tomb of Pantaleone Anchier de Troyes, titular cardinal 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.