A hidden gem just steps away from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Santa Prassede is a 9th-century basilica with glorious Byzantine mosaics in the apse and filling a side chapel. Also here is a piece of the scourging column of Christ, brought from Constantinople in the Middle Ages, relics from the catacombs in the crypt, and a monument by a 17-year-old Bernini.
History of Santa Prassede
The church of Santa Prassede is dedicated to St. Prassede (or Praxedes), the sister of St. Pudenziana and daughter of Pudens, in whose house St. Peter reportedly stayed while in Rome.
An oratory dedicated to Prassede was first built here by Pope Pius I in about 150 AD, but the remains of this have not been located with any certainty.
Also yet undiscovered are the remains of the 5th-century church of Santa Prassede that was built on this site. This was one of the tituli, the first parish churches of Rome, and was known as Titulus Praxedis. The first definite mention of the church is in 489, but it may have been built in the time of Pope St Siricius (384-399).
The current church dates from the early 9th century. Pope Paschal I (817-824) erected this basilica to replace the decaying 5th-century church and to house the neglected remains of saints that he had removed from the abandoned catacombs. He also included a funerary chapel for his mother Theodora.
The Basilica of Santa Prassede is an excellent example of the revival of early Christian art and architecture that characterized the Carolingian Renaissance.
The church was granted to the Vallombrosian Benedictines by Pope Innocent III in 1198.
Various restorations and additions were undertaken in the 15th to 19th centuries, which partly obscure the original rectangular plan.
What to See at Santa Prassede
There are two entrances to the church: the eastern entrance is on a side street (Via di Santa Prassede) just down the main road (Via Merulana) from Santa Maria Maggiore, but it is ideal to approach the church from the main, southern entrance on Via di San Martino ai Monti. The latter takes you past the original 9th-century facade of the basilica, now indoors.
The plan of the church is the typical basilica style of the earliest Roman churches, based particularly on the Constantinian Basilica of St. Peter. The design, the construction techniques, the use of Roman artifacts, and the style of the mosaics all demonstrate the early-Christian revival of the Carolingian Renaissance.
The nave has 16 granite columns and 6 piers forming two side aisles. The architrave is made of ancient Roman fragments, with the most richly decorated pieces placed nearest the high altar. Behind the high altar is an oil painting of St Praxedes Gathering the Blood of the Martyrs, painted c. 1730-35 by Domenico Muratori.
The 9th-century frescoes now located in the campanile (to the left of the apse) were originally on the walls of the transept. They depict the martyrdoms of the saints whose relics were transferred here by Pope Paschal.
Other features to look out for in the nave: a porphyry disk in the back of the nave, which is said to mark a well where St. Prassede placed the bones of martyrs; a marble slab in the back of the left aisle, on which St. Prassede is said to have slept; the tomb of G.B. Santoni (d.1592) by Bernini (made when the artist was only 17), along the right aisle near the front; and a plaque listing the relics placed in the church (an 18th-century copy of a 13th-century original), by the Santoni tomb.
At the base of the apse wall near the altar is the original 9th-century crypt. The shrine was decorated by the Cosmati brothers in the 13th century. Here the relics collected by Pope Paschal are kept, including the relics of Prassede and Pudenziana. Their sarcophagus (an ancient one that predates the relics' arrival here) is also said to contain a sponge used by the sisters to collect the blood of martyrs.
In the three other sarcophagi are relics of martyrs moved here from the catacombs. A sarcophagus on the left has a relief showing Christ as the Good Shepherd and Jonah resting on the beach after his encounter with the sea monster - both popular motifs in early Christian art. The lintel above the doorway to the crypt has a relief of Jonah being swallowed by the whale, taken from the 3rd-century sarcophagus of a woman called Ulpia, whom the inscription says was "the rarest of wives."
A large chapel at the end of the right aisle contains the tomb of Cardinal Anchero (known in French as Anchier de Troyes), Archbishop of Troyes, who died in 1286. The monument is by Arnolfo da Cambio. Here also is the tomb of Cardinal Alfano, made by Andrea Bregno. The fragments of sculpture in the chapel are from the 9th century furnishings of the church.
The Cappella del Crocefisso (Chapel of the Crucifix) contains a medieval crucifix, dated sometime between the 13th and the 15th centuries. According to tradition, St. Bridget of Sweden used to pray here in the 14th century and the crucifix once spoke to her. (St. Francis of Assisi had the same experience.)
Clearly there is much of interest to see here, but the most impressive feature of Santa Prassede by far are its mosaics, which cover the apse, the triumphal arch and the entire interior of the Chapel of St. Zeno. All are original to the 9th-century basilica. They are made almost exclusively of fine glass tesserae, which may have been taken from earlier mosaics.
The outer face of the triumphal arch features mosaics of the New Jerusalem, with doors guarded by angels. On the right side, an angel guides the saved. The inner face of the arch has Christ flanked by a row of saints.
The mosaics of the apse arch feature the Lamb of God with seven gold candlesticks, the Four Evangelists; and the 24 elders.
The apse mosaics depict Christ at his Second Coming, with Saints Peter, Pudenziana and Zeno on the right and Saints Paul, Prassede and Pope Paschal I (with square nimbus and model of the church) on the left. Above Christ is a phoenix, symbol of the resurrection, perched on a palm branch. On the intrados is the monogram of Paschal. This imagery is quite similar to that of the apse mosaics of Santa Cecilia and Santi Cosma e Damiano.
Below the apse mosaics is a dedicatory inscription. The antique lettering is in gold on a background of deep blue, and reads:
The small Chapel of St. Zeno, off the right aisle, was built as a mausoleum for Paschal's mother Theodora. It is the only chapel in Rome entirely lined with mosaics. It is an extraordinary sight and, for this author, the highlight of Santa Prassede.
All that is known about Zeno is that he was bishop of Verona (361-72), a trained orator and ardent preacher. His relics were among those brought from the catacombs by Pope Paschal.
The chapel is entered through a doorway flanked by ionic columns with 9th-century capitals, which support a 1st-century sculptured cornice. The cornice is inscribed with Paschal's monogram and inscribed with the dedicatory inscription:
Inside, the Chapel of St. Zeno is cross-shaped and based on the plan of early pagan and Christian mausoleums. It also resembles a cubiculum (small room) in the catacombs. The walls are covered in marble (original but restored) and the floor is opus sectile, with a large porphyry disk in the center. The columns are Roman spoils.
Be sure to plug a Euro or two in the coin-operated light just outside the chapel, especially if you want to photograph the mosaics. The mosaics are as follows:
In a niche on the right side of the chapel is a large piece of a black granite column, said to be the Column of Flagellation (the pillar to which Christ was tied as he was scourged before the crucifixion). The relic is said to have been brought from Constantinople by the papal legate Giovanni Colonna, titular cardinal of Santa Prassede, in 1223.
But regardless of its authenticity, for pilgrims it provides a focus for contemplation on the suffering of Christ. St Charles Borromeo celebrated Mass in this room daily while he was in Rome and St Bridget of Sweden often came here to pray. The relic is encased in glass below a baldachino of a rare type of marble, made in 1898.
Quick Facts on Santa Prassede
|Names:||Basilica di Santa Prassede · Santa Prassede|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.896411° N, 12.498655° E|
|Address:||9/a Via de Santa Prassede/Via San Martino ai Monti|
|Phone:||06 48 82 456|
|Hours:||Daily 7:30-12, 4-4:30|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Santa Prassede|
- Personal visit (July 2006).
- Matilda Webb, The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide (Sussex Academic Press, 2001).
- Chris Nyborg, "Santa Prassede" - Churches of Rome (dated 2000; accessed 2006).
Map of Santa Prassede, Rome
Below is a location map and aerial view of Santa Prassede. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.