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.


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!)

Early 20th century terrazo floor (detail), Santa Prassede.

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).

The alleged pillar on which Christ was flogged before his crucifixion.

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.

15th century tomb marker, floor of Santa Prassede

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.

If you are a fan of the mosaic art as I am, Santa Prassede is not to be missed under any circumstances.

Mosaic bust of Christ and four saints, Chapel of St. Zeno, Santa Prassede.

7 Responses to “Venetian Red in Rome: The Jewel in Rome’s Carolingian Crown”

  1. These are beautiful. One of my favorites is San Clemente. If you get a chance go down to see the Roman ruins it was built over. There was a famous murder mystery set down there, which I have forgotten the title of, but it’s a very amazing experience. You can also see Roman ruins under the church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere. It feels almost like you are time traveling to see the remains of a world long gone right under your feet. The gold background is very like the mosaics at San Marco in Venice which give such a gorgeous light inside. I didn’t know it when I was there, but read later that the mosaic artists did not place the gold tiles flat. They are all at slight angles so that they can reflect light as a soft glow, and not a flat mirror surface glare. This way, you can view the mosaic from any angle and still get the same soft glow.

    • Tess
      I did indeed go underneath San Clemente after visiting Sta Prassede. (I was on a mission to see as many of the early/Carolingian Christian churches as possible.) You are right, the excavations are stupendous and I believe the Roman house might be a relatively new discovery? At any rate, the two things sutt that particularly caught my eye were the “reversible” sign (one side Christian, the other side pagan) and the “underground” sewer or spring, which must have been either inside the Roman house or near it on the street level. Fascinating that water runs through it still.

      • That water under San Clemente was the famous Cloaca Maxima, the main sewer running to the river. It has had water in it since the Romans built it because they were also draining a very swampy area as well. It still drains the area. It gave me shivers to hear it down there in the semi dark. Have you ever read the Lindsay Davis books set in ancient Rome? I got a hundred more times fun out of her books AFTER I had been to Rome a coupe of times and was familiar with the ruins. There is also an ancient history site somewhere in my favorites list that gives you a virtual tour of the forum when it was in use. Will try to find it for you.

  2. What exquisite mosaics! Are you going to be able to get to Ravena? I think the Byzantine Church there is superb; I remember putting up the image of Theodora by my desk and wishing that I could have met her – or that we had a real biography of her.

  3. I remember the first time I entered the Chapel of St. Zeno – it was as if the true nature of the universe had been revealed, as if the jewel inside of all beings was made manifest. And I’m not even a Christian!

    There are many churches in Rome with astonishing mosaics. I recall entering the Basilica dei Santi Cosma e Damiano on the south side of Via dei Fori Imperiali, built into the ancient Roman Forum (between the Wedding Cake and the Colosseo) – a completely unremarked church – and being stunned by the beauty of the mosaics. You might check it out if you find yourself in the neighborhood.

    • Barry
      I completely agree with you about St. Zeno. What a superb description of its effect you’ve provided! Generally, I find art in the service of religion to be a tricky affair; didactic and propagandistic elements often subvert a true emotional response. But every once in a while you find yourself in the presence of a piece so pure in its evocation of the human spirit . . . For me, St. Zeno was such a work.

      BTW I did get to Santi Cosma e Damiano and you are right, the mosaics there are magnificent, though less extensive than Sta. Prassede. Plus, the quiet courtyard just outside with its gurgling lions’ heads fountain was a delightfully unexpected find.

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