Santa Prassede

Right around the corner from the grander Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore and hidden behind a very plain exterior, the unassuming Basilica of Santa Prassede—or Church of Saint Praxed—hides some of the most beautiful Byzantine mosaics in the city. While not as brilliant or polished as those in the eight Ravenna churches and mausoleums that comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they are nonetheless breathtaking and priceless as well as superb examples of early Christian art and architecture.

Other treasures in the Santa Prassede Church include a reputed piece of the column where Christ was scourged that was brought from Istanbul (then Constantinople) in 1223 during the Middle Ages, and relics from the catacombs in the crypt that had been abandoned as early as the ninth century. There is also one of the sculptor Bernini’s earliest works, a bust of Cardinal Santoni made when the artist was only seventeen years old—long before he created the masterpiece Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.

The history of St Praxed’s Church begins when Pope Pius I dedicated an oratory to Santa Prassede sometime around 150 AD. This saint was important then as the man in whose house Peter stayed when he visited Rome. The first parish church of Rome was built on the site in the fifth century. The current history of St Praxed’s Church dates to the ninth century when Pope Paschal I had the present structure erected. It is built on the typical basilica plan on which the magnificent San Pitero, or St. Peter’s Basilica, in the Vatican was designed.

The Church of Saint Praxed contains the sarcophagi of St. Prassede and his sister St. Pudenziana, as well as three sarcophagi retrieved from the catacombs under the crypt. The interior is quite lovely, but everything is overpowered by the incredible mosaics shining in brilliant gold. All are original, dating to the original construction of the structure in the ninth century. As was the custom in early Christian Byzantine art, the mosaic tiles are of tesserae—fine glass tiles with gold leaf sandwiched between them. This is what creates the richness and luminosity that you see in mosaics of the period all over Italy, especially in the Ravenna churches and churches in Sicily. Mosaics cover the apse arches and the apse itself. There is a chapel dedicated to St. Zeno, which is the mausoleum of Pope Paschal’s mother. It is the only chapel in Rome completely lined with mosaics.

Entry to the Church of Saint Praxed is free and it is open daily. Pilgrims come, both because of the history of St Praxed’s Church in relation to early Christianity and the relics particular to Christ that originally came from Jerusalem. The feast days of St. Praxed (July 21) and St. Pudenziana (May 19) are particularly popular with the faithful. Photography is allowed. If you want to photograph the glowing mosaics in the St. Zeno Chapel, bring some one-euro coins for the light machine just outside the chapel.

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