Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008
A tourist ambling along the streets near Santa Maria Maggiore would scarcely notice the simple façade of Santa Prassede nearby. The main entrance of the ninth century church is set back from the street, up a wide set of stairs and across an outdoor courtyard. The portico seen from the street is flanked on both sides by newer buildings and contains only a simple archway to allow visitors in to the stairway. However, the plain entrance is in no way indicative to the decoration of the rest of the church. In fact, Santa Prassede is known mainly for its breathtaking mosaics, which date back to when the church was built under Pope Paschal I. Paschal used the construction and decoration of Santa Prassede as a means of advancing his own name and convictions, as well as to promote Catholic ideals. Paschal’s agendas—both religious and secular—are seen in the details of the church, from the inscriptions along the basin of the apse to the blue halo which adorns his head, and will be discussed in detail in this paper.
In order to understand the reasons behind the building and decoration of Santa Prassede, it is important to understand the state of Rome and her churches leading up to the ninth century. The eighth century was marked by a series of Longobard sieges that left much of Rome in shambles; relics and martyrs’ bones were stolen, estates and church properties outside the city were looted, and the aqueducts were in disrepair. By the beginning of the ninth century, however, the Longobards had been defeated and the Byzantines driven out of Central Italy. Rome came under the power and protection of the Franks and Charlemagne was crowned emperor at St. Peter’s basilica in 800. Charlemagne was seen by many as the heir of Constantine and the protector of the church. After centuries of having the capital in the eastern city of Constantinople, this return of power to Rome caused a new tendency to look back and emulate the splendor of the early Christian empire. It also marked “beginning of an ambition to continue Roman world domination” (Grondman 70). This tendency was seen in the style of artwork and renovated churches at the time which deliberately tried to veer away from Byzantine influence and to instead feature only the style of early Christian art. This period of art and architecture is known as the Carolignian Renascence.
Because of the earlier instability and disarray of Rome and its’ churches, the rebuilding of Santa Prassede and other churches was important because it reestablished some order and refocused Romans on the veneration of their martyrs and the value of their religion. The reconstructions Paschal did after becoming Pope in 817 AD set a new precedent for the function of urban buildings. Not only did his churches serve their traditional role as neighborhood churches, they also housed the bodily remains of Roman Saints; there are remains of over 12,000 martyrs in Santa Prassede. Pashcal’s care of religious relics gave an impression that the papacy could intercede on behalf of mankind. The ornate mosaics in the church promoted his anti-iconoclastic view and the association with preserving the relics gave Paschal an authority as a protector of the church and a worthy man to serve as Pope.
Iconoclasm was a movement in the early eighth century that claimed images to be corrupting. To the iconoclasts, viewing Christian art and images was a form of idolatry that detracted from the worship of the one true God. In 724 AD an iconoclast emperor named Leo VII rose to power in the Eastern Empire of Constantinople. During his reign he called for the destruction of Christian relics and images to keep people from idolatry. In Rome, Pope Gregory III answered Leo’s edict with one of his own that prohibited the destruction of Christian images. This point of contention between the west and the east remained through the ninth century and Pope Paschal I’s reign.
Paschal made sure that his deeds of restoration and preservation were not soon forgotten; his image appears in the apse mosaic of each church and his insignia and name are inscribed multiple times throughout each. In Santa Prassede, a dedication is made along the basin of the apse in mosaic and reads as follows (translation):
This resting-place in honour of the noble Prassedes beloved of the Lord in
heaven, is resplendent with decoration of diverse precious stones thanks to the
kindness of the Sovereign Pontif Paschal disciple of the Apostolic See. He it
was who placed under these walls the bodies of numerous saints gathered from
every part, confident that, by their own means, they have merited admittance to
the resting-place in heaven.
Prassede is the patron saint of the church. She was the daughter of Senator Pudente, who came from a wealthy family and was St. Paul’s first Christian convert in Rome. He also housed St. Paul for seven years during Nero’s persecution. Pudente was from a wealthy family and a long line of senators. He is even mentioned in the Bible in the Second Letter to Timothy. Prassede also had a sister name Prudentiana and a brother named Novatus. After Pudente’s death, Prassede and her sister built a baptistery in the place of the titulus Pudente for the baptism of converted Christians. Prudentiana died at a young age and Prassede was left with the family wealth. It was after this that a church was first built in her name where she protected Christian persecuted by Emperor Antonius Pius. For those Christians who were martyred, Prassede gathered their bodies and placed them in the Catacombs of Priscilla. Prassede, too, died at a young age and was buried in the catacombs of Priscilla with the rest of her family though her bones and those of her sister have since been moved to the crypt of Santa Prassede. In Christian iconography, Prassede is often depicted holding a sponge to collect the blood of Christian martyrs in a well in commemoration of her work preserving the bones and relics of martyrs. A circle in the marble floor of the church still marks the spot where a well sat until 1913 to symbolize Prassede’s work for the martyrs.
Pope Paschal rebuilt the titulus Prassede in its current location in 822 AD. Santa Prassede and other church buildings of the time tended to mimic the early Christian basilica. In fact, S. Prassede is actually a model of the old St. Peters though on a smaller scale; there are two rather than four aisles, eleven rather than twenty-two columns on the sides of the nave, and one rather than two columns screening the transept off the aisles. Even the technique of construction is a harkening back to early Christian custom of the 4th and 5th centuries. The bricks are laid in a regular course rather than with the poor workmanship common in eighth century Rome. The foundations are solidly laid of large tufa blocks quarried from the “Servian” city walls. There is a small semi circular crypt below the church that can be entered from the nave which houses many of the relics and the remains of martyrs, as well as the bones of Prassede and Prudentiana. Originally there was an atrium in front of the church but it no longer stands today. It was built in the style of a colonnaded basilica with a narrow transept. At the front is a semicircular apse facing the northwest framed by a large triumphal arch, upon which are the elaborate mosaics that S. Prassede is famous for. The sides of the church contain smaller chapels, one of which I will talk about later in detail: the San Zeno Chapel.
The mosaics in S. Prassede were a main feature in Paschal’s reconstruction and decoration of the church and are some of the oldest surviving. Mosaics began to reappear in Rome in the late eighth century after being used in earlier centuries to decorate floors. Part of this reappearance may have been to compete with the ornately decorated buildings of Byzantium, however it was also indicative of a desire to recall the form and decoration of much earlier Christian art. The mosaics we see in S. Prassede and its’ contemporaries use glass tessare, some of which was actually taken from earlier Christian mosaics that were left in poor condition. The choice of material in itself is a decision to not use marble and glass as in Byzantium, but rather the traditional glass tessare of Christian art. The color of these mosaics was also important, especially gold which mimicked the glow of daylight and reflected the light from candles at night.
Not only was glass taken from earlier mosaics, but the schemes of S. Prassede’s mosaics also mimic earlier works. In the mosaic decorating the basin of the apse, Christ is depicted at his second coming. He floats in heaven among red clouds and blue stripes of light above the green of earth. His right hand is raised to show the scars of the crucifixion and his left hand holds the scroll of Christ. Jesus wears a tunic and sandals and has a gold halo with a blue cross. Above his head the hand of God emerges from a cloud to crown him in glory. To Christ’s left St. Peter stands with his arm around St. Pudentiana, presenting her to God. Farther to the left is a deacon who is arguably S. Zeno or S. Ciriacus. On Christ’s right, St. Paul is presenting Prassede to God. Both Prassede and Pudentiana wear rich Byzantine gowns and Prassede offers a crown to Christ which symbolizes the completed action of martyrdom. To Prassede’s right is Pope Paschal I, offering to the lord a small model of the church he has built for him. The square blue halo seen around Paschal’s head signifies that he was living when the mosaic was made. Palm trees cover the outer edges and a phoenix rests in one, representing rebirth and resurrection. The other palm represents Paradise. This scene is nearly identical to one in the sixth century church of SS. Cosma and Damiano. This general theme of Christ floating in a colorful heaven surrounded by Peter, Paul, the patron saints of the church, and the donor of the church became a very typical one during the Carolignian renascence and is seen in many churches of the time.
On the lower rim of the basin of the apse is a depiction of Jesus as the Lamb of God on top of a small mound with a golden background. Four rivers of Paradise flow from the mound. On the sides, twelve lambs representing the apostles leave Bethlehem on the left and Jerusalem on the right and walk inwards towards the Lamb of God. Below this is where the inscription, mentioned above, is placed.
The arch of the apse frames the basin beautifully and depicts different images. In the center is the Lamb on a bejeweled throne inside of a blue medallion. Under the throne are seven seals which only the Lamb can open to reveal God’s plan of salvation. Seven lamps on the side of the throne depict the seven churches of Asia. Moving farther out from the lamb are two angels on each side. On the left are the eagle (John) and the bull (Luke). To the right is the face of a man (Mathew) and a lion (Mark). These four are the four evangelists. Below and to the sides are twenty four elder men offering Christ a gold crown which symbolizes wisdom. In the very center of the bottom rim of the arch is a blue circle which is Paschal I’s monogram.
The Arch of Triumph, which is closest to the viewer when entering from the back of the nave, is just as richly decorated as the rest. Gem encrusted walls symbolize the celestial city of Jerusalem. Within the walls Christ, dressed in a gold tunic with red outline, carries a scroll in his left hand while he blessed those around him with his right. On each side of Christ is an angel and below the angels stand St. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, Santa Prassede and St. Paul. To their sides, a line of apostles and saints offers to Christ a crown as a symbol of His Divinity. At two ends within the walls are Moses and the prophet Elias. The angel in the red cloak near Elias is a symbol of the revelation in the Old Testament. The gates to this celestial Jerusalem are open and guarded by two angels. Outside, the elect are waiting to be let in. A crowd of people on the bottom left corner is also thought to represent the people whose bodily remains were brought into the church by Paschal.
The cross shaped San Zeno chapel was built by Pope Paschal between 817 and 824 and is said to be the most outstanding example of Byzantine influence in Rome from the Carolignian Renascence. St. Zeno is a saint about which little is known. Not even the date of his martyrdom or anything about his biography is known. However, his remains do rest in the Chapel of San Zeno. The chapel has a centrally planned area with four columns inserted in the corners that support the groined vault. The purpose of the chapel is not clear, but many speculate that it was built as a memorial for Pope Paschal’s mother, Theodora Episcopa.
The outside features a ninth century lintel supported by two columns, one in serpentine and the other in black and white marble. Atop the lintel rests an urn for ashes. The mosaic behind the urn contains two concentric arches. In the center of the first is the Madonna and the child with S. Zeno and S. Valentine on either side and four more saints below them. In the upper arch Christ is depicted with the twelve apostles. In the upper corners are Moses and Elias and in the lower corners are the portraits of Paschal I and his successor Eugene II.
The inside of the chapel of San Zeno is breathtaking upon entrance. Four columns with golden capitals provide no structural support for the chapel but serve as visual pedestals for the angels standing atop them and supporting Christ. On the wall of the counterfacade is throne with a golden cross being worshipped by Peter and Paul. The throne represents Christ waiting for the second coming. Farther up are full sized figures of S. Agnes, S. Pudentiana and S. Prassede processing towards the altar. The niche underneath shows again the lamb on a mound with four rivers flowing from it and the busts of the Virgin Mary, S. Prassede, S. Pudentiana, and Teadora, Paschal’s mother, with her square blue halo. To one side of the chapel is a niche with a second order relic-the column of the flagellation of Christ. Mosaics cover the entire interior of the chapel, striking in their use of color and gold tessarae to mimic gems. The figures in the mosaics of the chapel are dressed in distinctly Byzantine style and their angular faces outlined in darker colors are also common in Byzantine work. The women in the mosaics are strikingly beautiful, causing them to be called by some “Paschal’s Lolitas”.
Throughout the program of mosaics added in Paschal’s time there is a theme of hierarchy and symmetry which was important in Christian art. This hierarchy suggested the order provided by Christianity in a time that was decidedly disorderly. Jesus is always depicted largest of all and above everyone else, showing that he presides over the church and its’ ceremonies. The only way in which the mosaics veer from those of the fourth century and earlier is that they are not merely to depict the stories of Christianity, but also to promote the views and reputation of the patron. This more secular agenda is very apparent in Paschal’s depiction of himself as savior of martyrs and promotion of his anti-iconoclastic stance in S. Prassede. The fact that Paschal is repeatedly placed among Jesus and his saints insinuates closeness to God and a divine holiness which make him a worthy leader for the church.
Changes have been made to the church since it was restored by Paschal in 822. While there were once ten clerestory windows on each side of the nave, some have been covered and replaced by four on each side. The bright daylight that once unified the central nave and separated it from the darker side naves no longer exists and the mosaics can only be seen as they once were with the use of artificial light. At the end of the 16th century Alessandro de’ Medici , who became Pope Leo XI, called for the painting and decoration of the entire nave to display the stories of the Passion. Three ancient columns from between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD were rediscovered within a wall of the presbytery during reconstructions in the 1700s. They are grooved with bands of acanthus leaves and of Greek origin.
A ciborium with four pillars made of red porphyry which belonged to the original ciborium was constructed in the 1700s to bring more focus to the altar and to the newly rediscovered crypt. Four stucco angels by Giuseppe Rusconi top the pillars and symbolize martyrdom. The cupola is completely covered in frescos by Antonio Bicchierai. The addition of the ciborium overlaps with the apse mosaics and breaks up their unified reading. Many of the additions to the church subordinate the mosaics and conflict with the original intentions of Paschal I. In many cases they actually detract from the overall impression of the mosaics. Yet the mosaics still shine, most noticeable of all, and remind everyone of the rich history of the Christian church and the value that Paschal I placed on preserving that history.
“The Basilica of Saint Praxedis” Edizione d’Arte Marconi. April, 2005. B.N. Marconi
Grondman, Stefan. “The Architecture of Rome” London, 1998 pg 70-71, 85-86
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