Rome, S Prassede, The Zeno Chapel

Also known as The Zeno Chapel
Era 9AD - 13AD
Location Via di Santa Prassede, 9, 00184 Roma RM, Italy

Sta Prassede contains one of only a few early medieval side chapels to survive in Rome. Many were destroyed and replaced in the Renaissance and afterwards.

This little (it is 5 x 5.5 metres at its greatest) cross-shaped domed chapel is dedicated to S Zeno and located off the north-east aisle. Pope Paschal, who built the church, included this as a funerary chapel in honour of his mother, Theodora, who is depicted inside. It’s a splendid undertaking, a small, claustrophobic jewel-box of a chamber. Go in and try it with the lights on and with the lights off. This is the closest you’ll get to mosaics in Rome, so get a sense of the way in which mosaic crusts over a surface and is rough and bumpy.

There is a marble and granite revetment, considerable use of spolia and contemporary carvings, and a splendid opus sectile floor incorporating a massive porphyry roundel. The chapel also contained the relics of St Zeno himself and two other martyrs, brought by Paschal from the catacombs. Outside the door is a mosaic panel, a double arch filled with roundels of Christ, Virgin and saints. Inside, the chapel bursts with detail. On the vaulted golden ceiling, a bust of Christ in a roundel faces the door, to greet those entering. This roundel, shaped like a victory wreath, is supported by four mosaic angels standing on mosaic globes which in turn appear to stand on the real marble capitals of the real marble columns below. There is a small altar in front of the door, with a mosaic panel of the Virgin and Child (dated anywhere between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries) replacing a scene of the Transfiguration, which is cut away. In the short cross arm to the (viewer’s) left of the altar is a partly-destroyed scene of the Anastasis (Christ’s descent into Hades and his resurrection of the dead there) and four quarter-length busts of women: Theodora (with a square halo and inscription) on the far left, then an unnamed saint then the Virgin, then another unnamed saint. These two anonymous women may once more be the sacred sisters, Prassede and Pudenziana. Above them, a rather one-eyed Lamb of God stands on a hill from which the four rivers of Paradise descend and deer drink. Above this are three more women martyrs: Prassede and Pudenziana again, plus Agnes. To the right of the altar are three-quarter length figures: Christ in the centre and two saints: above them, three full-length saints, John, Andrew and James; above the main door, facing the altar are two further full-length saints, Paul and Peter. The imagery is one of resurrection and salvation (the Transfiguration, the Anastasis), watched over by the ascended Christ in the dome, with the assorted saints perhaps buoying Paschal’s (and indeed Theodora’s) prayers and hopes for the afterlife.


Auxiliary chapels and their altars were increasingly important in medieval western churches as reserved family spaces for the burial of the dead, prayer and commemoration, especially as the great high altar, with the development of chancel and rood screens, became increasingly isolated and formalised away from the general congregation.

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