Rome, S Prassede

Era 9AD
Location Via di Santa Prassede, 9, 00184 Roma RM, Italy

All you really see of the outside of Sta Prassede is the door up a side street away from Sta Maria Maggiore. The rest is swamped by buildings.

The church of Sta Prassede was the foundation of Pope Paschal I (817-24). This was a titulus church built on the site, or close to the site, of an earlier church. The most important function of the tituli churches of Rome at this time was to stage the papal mass on designated feast days, mostly in Lent; they were then used for regular masses when the pope was not in attendance. Consequently, such churches served as places for collective worship for specific communities.

The church contained the relics of two thousand martyrs, whose bones Paschal had brought to the church from the catacombs. It was dedicated to S Prassede, part of a pairing of sacred sisters who, with their father, were believed to have sheltered St Peter in Rome and to have suffered for their faith. The church dedicated to the other sister, S Pudenziana, with its fourth-century mosaic, is little more than five minutes’ walk away. In plan, S Prassede is a large aisled basilica with a transept, a transverse crossing in front of the presbytery. No expense was spared: inside, it boasts an impressive range of marbles, columns, and sculptures, many of which were spolia but some were specifically made for the church in an antique style. The mosaics are in the apse, triumphal arch and the choir arch, and in the little Zeno chapel part way down the south side of the church. It seems likely that the rest of the church was painted.

So, the mosaics. In the apse, Christ stands in the centre, surrounded by red and blue clouds and extending his right hand in blessing. He is crowned by the Hand of God through the clouds. On his right, our left, Paul escorts Ss Prassede and Pope Paschal, with a square halo and offering the church; on his left, our right, are Peter, Pudenziana and, plausibly, St Zeno. The saints are unnamed, but it makes sense to identify them with the dedicatees of the church. All stand on a green ground. To right and left are palm trees; that on our left, behind Paschal, contains a phoenix, a symbol of everlasting life and hence resurrection and salvation. The River Jordan flows along the bottom, suggesting salvation through baptism. Below, a frieze of twelve sheep emerge from the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and approach a central Lamb. Below them is a long inscription, hailing the zeal of Paschal. A garland of fruit and flowers encircles the inner curve of the arch, with Paschal’s monogram at its centre.

On the wall around the apse, the imagery is apocalyptic. At the top, the Lamb of God occupies a backless throne in the centre, flanked by seven candlesticks, four angels, and the evangelist symbols/beasts of the apocalypse (Man-Matthew; Lion-Mark; Ox-Luke; Eagle-John) and, below them in the spandrels, stands the choir of the twenty-four Elders, holding up their crowns. The theme of apocalyptic salvation continues on the Triumphal arch. Here, within a representation of a city, presumably the New Jerusalem with its gold and jewelled walls, Christ holds the centre space. He is flanked by an angel on either side. To his right stand a woman (probably Mary), John the Baptist, St Paul and six figures holding crowns, presumably Apostles. There’s been a fair bit of restoration done here so it’s hard to be sure. To Christ’s left is another woman, most likely to be S Prassede, with Peter and six more figures, the remainder of the Apostles. Outside the city walls, bands of martyrs, dressed both as clergy and laity, wait to be admitted by the angels guarding the city gates. On the left, a group of female martyrs may well be headed by the saintly sisters yet again, Prassede and Pudenziana; to the right, St Peter waits to greet the elect. Below both groups to right and left, confessors enthusiastically wave palm branches. Paschal’s monogram is again at the centre of the arch. The guarding of the heavenly city by Peter and Paul suggests that it might also represent Rome itself, and the crowd of faithful coming into it from outside the walls may well indicate those martyrs whose relics Paschal had interred in the church.

The mosaics contain a great deal of iconography familiar in Rome. The apse and the front of the apse arch are immediately and obviously comparable with the mosaics of SS Cosmas and Damien, as well as carrying motifs (the sheep, the clouds for example) seen in a variety of other earlier Roman churches, including S Pudenziana. They call up similar messages: the presence of the patron before Christ; the blessing of the saints; the suggestion of the Second Coming. The Triumphal arch is very distinctive. It is a scene of salvation and reception in heaven, and an evocation of the Second Coming and of the saving of the righteous, but it also conjures up the city of Rome itself, and the church and its saint, Prassede, and its translated martyrs. Indeed, just as the apse of Prassede’s sister’s church may have brought recollections of both Jerusalem and Rome to its viewers, the same duality was perhaps created here.

The design is full of detail. But from the main body of the church, the mosaics can be seen as a single coherent whole, a stunning overall programme that cascades down from the Triumphal arch into the apse arch and apse itself. Taken together, it proclaims a uniform message of salvation through and by the saints at the Second Coming. Paschal himself holds a dominant position, for his monogram shares the central vertical axis of the whole programme with Christ (Christ in Jerusalem/Rome, monogram, Lamb, Empty Throne, monogram, hand of God, Christ, Lamb, inscription). In this way, in addition to his portrayal in the apse, Paschal was included among the elect. Not only that, when the living popes, Paschal himself or his successors, stood at the altar of the church to celebrate Mass, or sat below it - and the pope was the only person with his own seat in church, located at the apex of the apse, facing the altar - they too would have shared in this axis, present as human and image, eternally part of the divine celebration.


I’ve given the lovely little Zeno Chapel in this church its own entry. I haven't put the mosaic in the side chapel in the north east corner in. This is a website about medieval mosaics. If I ever extend it...

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