Church of Santa Prassede

Today the church of Santa Prassede is entered from a side door opening onto the street of the same name. However, it was originally accessed from Via di San Martino ai Monti, through a prothyros, the typical square porch of Romanesque churches. This led into a square courtyard that mimics the four-sided portico of early Christian basilicas. According to the sources, the saint was celebrated as early as 489 with the first church, the titulus Praxedis, dedicated to a Praxedis martyred in the second century, probably during the reign of Antoninus Pius. Tradition links her to Saint Pudentiana, after whom a nearby church in Via Urbana is named: both daughters of the Roman senator Pudens, they were among the first to convert to Christianity after the sermons of the apostle Paul.

The Liber Pontificalis informs us that in around 780 Pope Adrian I completely renovated the structures of the Titulus while the church that we see today was completely rebuilt by Pope Paschal I in the early decades of the ninth century. Despite numerous renovations, the church still preserves the magnificent mosaics commissioned by Pope Paschal I, among the most important examples of the Roman art of the Carolingian period. This era began with the reign of Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman emperor by Pope Leo III in St Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Eve of the year 800. In the following decades, art and culture developed to such an extent that we can speak of a true “Carolingian Renaissance” of which the mosaics of Santa Prassede are one of the most notable art works. In a style clearly indebted to Byzantine art, the mosaics depict Christ, the Apostles, Moses, Elijah, the symbols of the Evangelists, the Agnus Dei, the seven candlesticks and the 24 elders of the Apocalypse. Christ appears in the apse with Sts Peter, Pudentiana, a deacon, Paul, Praxedis and Paschal I. Above the figure of Jesus appears the hand of God the Father, while the pontiff who commissioned these works, his head surrounded by the square halo typical of the living, offers Christ the church of Santa Prassede.

The focal point of this church is the chapel of St Zeno, built by the Pope as a funeral monument in honour of his mother Theodora. The external portal consists of reused classical elements, while on the beautiful vault, we see Christ supported by four angels on a gold background, surrounded by other holy scenes.