Our time in Italy in November continued...
Not far from the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline Hill and up a narrow side-street off the Piazza di S. Maria Maggiore is the Basilica di Santa Prassede. I had the opportunity to visit the church on the day we travelled back to the UK as it's only a short walk from the main train station where we take a break before taking a second train to get to the airport. Churches are open at an early hour for a service and morning prayer which means that visitors and those working in the city can enter to spend a time of quiet contemplation. I arrived just after 9 o'clock and already the dim interior was punctuated by the lights of votive candles and spot lighting. The mosaics decorating the walls surrounding the High Altar, the sanctuary and the side chapels gleamed and glittered whilst the frescoes in the nave were lit by the natural light coming in from the windows above.
This 9th century church is dedicated to S. Prassede. It was built on a site where there was a 2nd century oratory and where, according to legend, a holy woman sheltered Christians on the run from persecution, collected the remains of those who had been martyred and placed them in a well for safe-keeping. A red porphyry disc in the floor of the nave marks the spot where the well was located and where S. Prassede was buried. It was thought that she was the daughter of a Roman senator, Pudens, who had been converted to Christianity. Another church in the area is dedicated to her sister, Pudenziana, who also cared for victims of persecution and according to legend is the site where Pudens and his family lived. There is little evidence to confirm these stories although these smaller churches certainly received the remains of some of the early Christians from the catacombs in later times.
Furthermore, the basilica is also well-known because it is decorated with the 9th century mosaics done by artists who came from Byzantium under the patronage of Pope Paschal I (817-824) who was later interred in the church. The small Chapel of St Zeno is the only chapel in Rome entirely covered in such mosaic decoration. It was built as a future mausoleum for Pope Paschal's mother, Theodora. It contains the relics of St. Zeno, martyr, taken from one of the catacombs on the Appian Way.
It was quite an experience to enter this small box-like room (a cubiculum) based on ones to be found in the catacombs. It was in darkness except for light coming in from a window in the ceiling. It's possible to put a coin in a machine before going into it. The chapel is then lit up for five minutes. I didn't do this and as I was concentrating mainly on the cross vaulted ceiling I missed much of the detail on the walls. (Flash photography is not allowed in the church). However, the iconography I saw was very meaningful as the light from the window focused on Christ Pantocrator ("all powerful"). On the walls are angels, figures such as John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, John the Evangelist, St. James and Andrew.
the High Altar
Mosaics inside the apse show Christ among the clouds being blessed by the hand of God the Father. SS Peter and Paul have their arms around the shoulders of SS Prassede and Pudenziana as they are being presented to God. They are shown as Byzantine ladies, be-jewelled, dressed in cloth-of-gold and wearing red shoes indicating their status as heavenly princesses. On the far left one figure with the church building in his hands is Pope Paschal I. He has a square halo (a nimbus) which indicates that he was living at the time the mosaics were done.
The theme of the Triumphal Arch mosaics high above the sanctuary is the Second Coming of Christ and the End of Time based on the description in St. John the Apostle's Book of Revelation.
Archangel Gabriel (left) and St. Matthew (right)
The Chapel of St. Zeno
Going back out into the streets and the world of the 21st century was a strange experience although I needed to get back to my husband who was waiting with the hand luggage in the Termini train station. There were wonderful buildings to see along the way such as the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore which I featured on a blog post in April. The high security presence of police vans, soldiers, check-in tents with x-ray machines outside for visitors who wished to visit the basilica was still there.
a detail of the fountain at the base of
the Column of Peace, in Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore
the back of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and the Piazza dell'Esquilino
The granite obelisk in the piazza was taken from the entrance to the Mausoleum of Augustus.
Hotels and shops were getting ready for Christmas with their decorations.