The station churches of Rome form part of a traditional 4th century custom that honoured the Christian martyrs of Rome and helped to strengthen the early Christian community of the city. This Lent, a small insight into the history of some of the station churches will mark our progress towards the celebration of Easter.
The final stop on our tour of the Station Churches of Rome has to be one of the best hidden secrets of Rome’s bountiful supply of churches. The Basilica of Santa Prassede (sometimes referred to as St. Praxedes) is small by Roman standards, yet full of treasures which its simple entrance belies.
In close proximity to Mary Major, the Basilica is named after Prassede who along with her sister Pudentiana, cared for fellow Christians subjected to persecution by the Roman Emperor Marcus Antonius in the 2nd Century. The two sisters supported those suffering with money, comfort and shelter. They hid some of them in their houses, as well as actively encouraging others to maintain their faith. Prassede’s own plea was, that if she were to die, she would not have to suffer such agonies as she had witnessed in others. Like so many early martyrs in the church, the date of the sisters’ deaths is uncertain, but tradition holds that Prassede died on the 21st July in the year 165. Following her death, she was buried in the catacombs of St Priscilla, before her relics were removed in 491 to the newly built basilica that bore her name. She, along with her sister, are now entombed under the altar in the Basilica.
The first church that existed on this site is said to have developed from the house of St Prassede, and it was this church which Pope St Paschal I rebuilt featuring luminous art designed to restore some beauty to Rome following the Dark Ages. The entrance built at that time still survives today, incorporated into the portico that overlooks the Via San Martino ai Monti. Other fragments from the first basilica were also retained in the new churches that appeared on the same site through the ages. One feature that has remained intact is the triumphal arch over the apse, altar and crypt. Paschal had the remains of 2,300 martyrs from the catacombs scattered around Rome incorporated into this.
Beyond this arch is an apse decorated with a magnificent mosaic that bears a striking resemblance to the one in the church of Sts Cosmas and Damian. Here, against a sky blue background, Christ is seen in golden robes under the hand of God the Father. He is flanked by St Peter and St Paul who are depicted presenting St Prassede and her sister Pudentiana to Christ. The two women are seen holding the crowns of their martyrdom and flanked by St Zeno, a saint close to the heart of Pope St Paschal, who himself is depicted on the opposite side, under a blue nimbus, used in iconography to depict the living. This substantial piece of art however does not end in the apse. Above, the Lamb of God is flanked by seven candlesticks and the symbols associated with the four evangelists. Lines of white-robed figures are also seen proffering wreaths to the Lamb. Above this can be seen Our Lady, St John the Baptist and the apostles pointing to Christ who is surrounded by angels.
Another of the additions from the time of Pope St Paschal I that still survives today is the chapel of St Zeno, which he commissioned in memory of his mother Theodora. The chapel is a masterpiece and is covered from wall to wall with mosaics designed to portray a vision of heaven. The space also features four columns surmounted by angels who reach for the pinnacle of the chapel from where the face of Christ gazes down.
In 1198, work to rectify instability in the building led to a reconfiguration of the church by Pope Innocent III which resulted in some of the clerestory windows (designed in the Paschal building to flood the nave with light) to be closed up. A later Cardinal Priest of the church, Charles Borromeo, attempted to rectify the 12th century changes, but with little success. Some of these changes can still be seen today. Other artefacts of St Charles Borromeo, canonised in 1610, are visible in the church, including his chair and the table at which he dined with the poor of Rome.
Various frescoes were commissioned by another Cardinal, Alexander de Medici before his elevation to the Pontificate as Leo XI in 1605. Tombs can be seen throughout the Basilica, which were designed by famed Italian artists, including a young Bernini, who designed the monument to Giovanni Santoni.
Within the chapel of St Zeno, mentioned above, is possibly the greatest of the treasures in St Prassede. Gifted to the church in 1223 by Cardinal Giovanni Colonna is the marble pillar venerated as the column which Christ was tied to during his flagellation on Good Friday.