Venetian Red in Rome: The Jewel in Rome’s Carolingian Crown
Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.
By LIZ HAGER
Apse Mosaics, Santa Prassede, Rome. The iconographic program consists of themes associated with the Apocalypse.
A stone’s throw from the madding crowds at Santa Maria Maggiore lies Santa Prassede, nearly empty the other afternoon when I visited. Santa Prassede has all the attributes of its larger cousin but in a more intimate setting, which fosters a truly contemplative experience. (No tour groups here!)
Santa Prassede occupies an important position in the pantheon of early Christian churches. Santa Praxedes (Prassede) and Prudentiana were the daughters of Roman senator Prudens (first century AD), who was immortalized in a brief passage in Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy. Santa Prassede, like the earliest Christian churches, especially those on the Esquiline hill, was built on top of Roman imperial structures and, as a consequence, follows the Roman basilica plan (apse, nave and aisles).
Though previous churches occupied the space, the structure in its current form was inaugurated by Pope Hadrian I in around 780, but it was really Pope Paschal (817-824), who created the true glory of Santa Prassede. At the forefront of the Carolingian Renaissance, during his reign, Paschal undertook two ambitious programs—the first, building new churches; the second to recover martyr bones from the the catacombs and distribute them throughout churches in Rome.
The mosaics date from Paschal’s time. The apse mosaics are a stunning example of the no-holds-barred Carolingian program—in this case, Christ flanked by Saints Peter and Paul who present Prassede and Pudenziana to God. Below them, is the band of lambs with the central haloed lamb as the symbol of Christ’s resurrection. For the care with which the sheeps’ fur and heads are depicted, I find this the sweetest of all the Carolingian elements. Along the outer registers are numerous scenes, depicting others being welcomed into Heaven by saints.
The grand program is magnificent, but it is the tiny chapel of St. Zeno inside the church that qualifies Santa Prassede as a true jewel in my book. This is the only chapel in Rome entirely lined with mosaics and it was without a doubt the unexpected highlight of a day filled with wonderful art viewing. As the lights came on (as in all Rome’s churches you must feed the light meter), the sparkle of encrusted tesserae of turquoise and gold in this tiny space took my breath away.
Mosaic bust of Christ and four saints, Chapel of St. Zeno, Santa Prassede.