Santa Prassede is a 9th century minor basilica, also a monastic and titular church, at Via Santa Prassede 9/A. This is in the rione Esquilino. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to St Praxedes.
The patron saint of this church is one of those at Rome, the biographies of whom are now completely lost. The revised Roman martyrology now simply lists her as the person to whom the church is dedicated -in other words, we cannot even be sure that she was a martyr.
A fictional romantic legend of the 6th century, which may possibly preserve the names of real people, describes St Pudens as a Roman senator who gave hospitality to St Peter . He allegedly had two virgin daughters who were martyred, SS Pudentiana and Praxedis; the former has the nearby church of Santa Pudenziana dedicated to her. The existence of the martyr daughters is historically extremely problematic, and "Pudentiana" probably derives from a corruption of the original titulus name of that church as Titulus Pudentianus or "Pudentian Title". Pudens himself has been deleted from the revised Roman martyrology.
The most recent scholarly consensus on who Praxedis really was, concludes that she was probably a lady who donated property for the foundation of the original church, or money for the purpose.
The first definite mention of the forerunner of the present church is an epitaph dated 491, in which a Presbyter Tituli Praxedis is mentioned. This was found in the catacombs of St Hippolytus, near San Lorenzo fuori le Mura.
The tituli were the first parish churches of Rome, mostly established after Christians were given freedom of worship by the emperor Constantine in 313 (the archaeological evidence for dedicated places of worship in the city before then is extremely poor). One surmise is that the first church here was built in the time of Pope St Siricius (384-399), but this is just an educated guess.
Pope Adrian I (772-95) is described in the Liber Pontificalis as having restored this original church in integro, indicating that it had fallen into a bad state of repair. Pope Leo III (802-6) donated several valuable liturgical items.
It used to be automatically assumed that if an ancient titulus had the same name as an old church in the city, it used to be on the same site. This assumption is no longer held. Especially here, it is known that the present church was rebuilt on a site near to (not on) the old one. Unfortunately, there is not a single shred of documentary or archaeological evidence that allows us to guess where the old church was.
Pope St Paschal I (817-24) abandoned the old church, and built a new one on a terrace levelled on a slope of the Esquiline Hill in the year that he was elected. This is essentially the building that we have, although there have been several major architectural interventions since.
Part of the function of the new church was to serve as a repository for relics of martyrs from the catacombs. At the beginning of the 9th century, the government of the city of Rome had lost control of its surrounding countryside to gangs of marauders, and the safety of pilgrims could no longer be guaranteed. As a result, the Church undertook a campaign to collect the relics of martyrs being venerated, and to re-enshrine them in churches within the city walls. All the catacombs except those at San Sebastiano fuori le Mura were then abandoned, and their locations forgotten. The new shrine churches usually displayed the feature of a mock catacomb under the high altar, typically a semi-circular confessio (a sort of crypt) accessed by stairs from either end of the transept. The confessio was either genuinely underground, or was under the raised floor of the sanctuary.
The church was given another function by the pope; he attached the unique funerary chapel of St Zeno to the right hand side wall, to serve as a memorial for his mother. At this period side chapels in churches were still not the norm, as it was usual to build a separate church or chapel if one wanted to for a specific purpose.
The pope also founded a monastery next to the church, and staffed it with some of the Byzantine-rite Greek monks who had arrived in Rome in numbers in the previous century as refugees from the Iconoclast policy in the Byzantine Empire. The new monastery is on record as having two other chapels, dedicated to St John the Baptist and St Agnes, and the pattern of a monastery having several churches (instead of one church with lots of side chapels, as in mediaeval western Europe), is still usual among the Eastern Churches today. Armellini, writing at the end of the 19th century, states that the chapel of St John was on the other side of the basilica from that of St Zeno, and St Agnes's was behind the apse.
Appearance of original basilica
This was allegedly the first church in Rome since Santa Sabina to be modelled on the ancient San Pietro in Vaticano, but the basilical layout that it has was actually typical for Roman churches of the Late Classical and Dark Ages periods.
Pope Paschal had provided an edifice having a central nave of twelve bays with aisles, separated by trabeations (horizontal entablatures) supported by eleven columns on each side and with twelve windows in each upper nave wall. There was a structurally distinct transept with a separate roof, the ends of which protruded beyond the side aisles (this feature was unusual). This transept had six windows on each side. Beyond the transept was a large semi-circular external apse having five windows, and under it was the confessio or crypt for relics of the martyrs. This was accessed via a transverse underfloor passage accessed via stairs in each end of the transept, hence allowing a one-way flow of pilgrims. This arrangement survives at, for example, San Marco.
Off the right hand aisle in the eighth bay of the nave was the funerary chapel of St Zeno. There were no other chapels opening off the nave when the church was built, with the possible exception of that of St John the Baptist opposite.
The church had an atrium in front of it, which was a courtyard with colonnaded covered walkways at the four sides. To appreciate the layout, visit San Clemente where the original atrium survives. The inspiration was the atrium in an ancient Roman villa, and these church atria in turn inspired the cloister in a mediaeval Western monastery. Unlike the latter, which was private to the monks, the atrium here and at other churches functioned as a combination assembly-hall and shop. Such activities as holding lectures and meetings, selling candles and religious items, arranging processions, having picnics and socializing all occurred here and not in the church itself, which was reserved for prayer and worship.
The atrium faced onto a street which is now the Via di San Martino ai Monti, and here was the main gateway inserted (it is belived) into a building facing the street. This would have been the place where the monastery's servants and armed retinue would have lived. Again, at San Clemente this layout survives.
The location and layout of the original monastery are unclear.
The mosaics commissioned for this church by Pope Paschal are deservedly famous. However, the surveying during the construction was seriously badly done and the edifice is "wonky". The nave walls and colonnades are not parallel, neither are they straight. The transept is not at right angles to the nave's major axis, and neither are the façade and the atrium. This left the structure compromised. The clearest sign of this is at the top of the mosaic on the triumphal arch -there is a sag between the wall and the ceiling.
The presence of Byzantine rite monks at Rome faded away towards the end of the 9th century. Many would have gone home after the Imperial government at Constantinople abandoned iconoclasm, and others would have left because of a growing hostility between the sister churches at Rome and Constantinople. This hostility led to the entire presence of Byzantine-rite monks at Rome to be edited out of the historical record in the later Middle Ages, to be replaced by the fantasy that monastic life at Rome before the 10th century was Benedictine.
Benedictine monks were probably here by the early 10th century, because they became dominant in Roman monasticism then. In this century or early in the next, the layout of the present monastery around a square cloister was established just north of the basilica, with the apse being incorporated into the south range -as it still is.
However the monks became very seriously corrupt in the 12th century, and lost most of their monasteries in the city as a result. This one was granted to the Canons Regular of Santa Maria in Reno by Pope Anastasius IV (1153-4), but they proved almost as bad. Finally, Pope Innocent III assigned the complex to the reformed Benedictine congregation based at the abbey of Vallombrosa in 1198.
The Vallumbrosans (note spelling, the original Latin word means "Shady Valley") had been founded by St John Gualbert in 1073, as one of the many attempts at the time to reform the Benedictine order. The monastery here became one of their more important ones, and has survived as a functioning monastic community to the present day.
When the monks took charge, they had to instigate a major renovation because the fabric of the basilica was becoming unstable owing to the surveying quirks already mentioned. To consolidate the structure, three transverse arches were inserted into the nave which were supported by six massive piers enclosing ancient columns. Also, most of the original windows were blocked up -although it is difficult to ascertain when this happened because of the activities of later restorers.
In the late 13th century a squat tower campanile was perched on top of the left hand end of the transept, and a little later the right hand end was walled off to create a chapel dedicated to All Saints. The first storey of the campanile and this chapel were still accessible from the sanctuary via arcades of two arches each.
Around the same time, in the reign of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-2), the relics of St Valentine were brought from his shrine on the Via Flaminia (see Basilica e Catacomba di San Valentino) and enshrined in the Chapel of the Pillar. The reason why this church was chosen for the honour was that the St Zeno of the chapel next door featured (confusedly) in his fictional legend.
The beginning of a series of major re-orderings of the church was in 1489, when Cardinal Antonio Pallavicini Gentili commenced a five-year project to enclose the sanctuary. The arcades just mentioned were blocked, and small elevated choirs for the monks were inserted on each side. The arrangement was possible because the apse intruded into the monastic range to the north, and the monks could enter from the second storey of their monastery. This cardinal was in the very odd situation of having the dignity, but not being attached to any one church so he is not in the cardinalate list given in the "External links" below.
In 1564 St Charles Borromeo, the saintly archbishop of Milan, was made the titular. He took a strong personal interest in the church, and it is on record that he used to spend a whole night in prayer in the confessio when on visits to Rome. Also he used to keep a set of rooms in the monastery as his lodgings, and distributed alms to poor people in the former atrium (by then ruined, and turned into an ordinary courtyard). The table that he used is preserved as a relic in the church.
The work involved: Remodelling the entrance staircase from the main entrance to the courtyard; re-facing the façade; opening eight large windows in the upper nave walls; vaulting the side aisles, and building a new sacristy. Most unfortunately, he inserted two little balconies in front of reliquary cupboards on either side of the triumphal arch, destroying parts of the ancient mosaic in the process. These balconies or poggioli (they are not cantoria, because they were not intended for musicians) were for the display of saints' relics on their feast-days. This would have formerly been done on the main altar, but the developing understanding of the Mass at the time promulgated by the Council of Trent wished to reserve altars for the Eucharist only.
The other work done by Longhi in the sanctuary was destroyed in later restorations. He is also accused of having cut back the carving on the capitals of the ancient nave columns, and having replaced it with stucco -perhaps unfairly, as this work seems to have continued until the start of the 17th century. The main project was finished in 1584, and also involved the rebuilding of the monastery to the north.
Ten years after this, Alessandro de' Medici became cardinal here and ordered the decoration of the nave including the fresco cycle to be found on the upper walls. In 1605 he was elected as Pope Leo XI.
The next major intervention was by Ludovico Cardinal Pico della Mirandola, who became cardinal in 1728. This involved the complete re-designing of the sanctuary and confessio (crypt), entailing the loss of Borromeo's work. The entrances to the confessio in the ends of the transept were closed and filled in, and a new entrance created under the altar. The saints' relics found in a small room under the altar were re-enshrined in ancient sarcophagi found with them, and these were then placed in the entrance corridor which runs through the location of the destroyed room. As usual with restoration work of archaeological importance at this period, no proper records were kept of what was actually discovered.
A major re-ordering of the parishes of the Centro Storico took place in 1824, under the bull Super Universam issued by Pope Leo XII. This suppressed the very ancient parish attached to the church -it was a surprising to happen to a parish descended from a titulus.
The nave was provided with a coffered wooden ceiling in 1868, using wood and timber from the private forest of the Abbey of Vallombrosa. Unfortunately, the monks were in possession for only another five years. Together with all others in the city, the monastery was sequestered by the Italian government in 1873. Part of it served as an army barracks for a while, but was later converted into two Commercial Schools (Commerciale), one for boys (Amerigo Vespucci) and one for girls (Reginaldo Giuliani). In 1924 the monastic ranges were mostly rebuilt and given extra storeys, but the cloister garth and arcades remain.
In 1918, the 17th century brick and marble slab flooring was replaced by the present spectacular floor in the Cosmatesque style, a massively expensive project with a result good enough to fool many visitors into thinking that it is mediaeval. In the process, some evidence was found to suggest that the original basilica had a schola cantorum made of marble plutei such as the one that survives at San Clemente.
In the 20th century, the basilica was the target of ideological "archaeologists" who wished to "restore" it to its presumed mediaeval appearance by destroying later work, especially that of the Baroque. The most important of these was Antonio Muñoz, who was Superintendent of Fine Arts and Antiquties for the city and later for the Fascist government. As well as overseeing the massive and ruinous (literally) demolitions of later structures in the Forum and elsewhere to expose ancient remains, he also stripped several ancient churches such as Santa Sabina. Fortunately, here he was not able to do too much damage and actually performed a useful restoration of the Chapel of the Cross. He also had the humility of admitting that the evidence was inadequate for rebuilding the schola cantorum, as some wanted to do -although he did such a thing at Santa Balbina on a similar paucity of evidence. (Here, the expense and the presence of a brand-new Cosmatesque floor might also have been factors.)
Muñoz did oversee a "restoration" of the façade in 1937. This involved stripping all the plaster off it to reveal naked brick, destroying the central three-light window inserted by Borromeo and replacing it with a row of three identical windows for which there was evidence in the brickwork. Again, he had the relative humility to leave Borromeo's doorcase alone as evidence for the original entrance arrangements was lacking. However, his leaving the brickwork naked was simple ignorance. The ancients and mediaevals always covered brickwork, usually with a skin of lime stucco, and this is because (until modern times) bricks were slightly permeable and slowly absorbed moisture.
There was another bad restoration between 1969 and 1973, when fresco work on the counterfaçade and on the intradoses of the transverse nave arches was replaced with whitewash.
The Vallumbrosan monks have retained some accommodation, and hence have continued their presence at the church. The convent is their Roman headquarters, but unfortunately (according to the Diocese) only two monks are now attached to it (2013). The institute of philosophy and theology that used to operate here seems to be in abeyance.
Among the titulars of the church we find Giovanni Cardinal Colonna (13th century, not the more famous cardinal of the same name of the 15th century); Anchero Cardinal Pantaléon, who was assassinated in the church during a popular uprising in 1286 (his name is variously rendered, and because he was formerly bishop of Troyes in France he has been referred to as Anchier Cardinal de Troyes); St Charles Borromeo (titular 1564-1584), and Ludovico Cardinal Pico della Mirandola (titular 1728-1731).
The current titular of the church is H.E. Paul Cardinal Poupard.
For a full list of the cardinals, see the web-page in "External links"
Layout and fabric
The church is a typical basilica, with a nave of twelve bays having side aisles, a transept and an external semi-circular apse. Off the side aisles on both sides are several external chapels of various shapes and sizes; five on the right, and four on the left. In the right hand end of the transept is another chapel, and in the corresponding left hand end is the campanile the ground floor of which used to be another chapel.
The fabric is in red brick. The nave roof is pitched and tiled in the usual way, but the separate tiled transept roof has the unusual feature of only a single pitch running down towards the apse.
The exterior of the basilica itself is invisible from the street, and only the back walls of the right hand side chapels show up on the west side of the Via Santa Prassede (south of the usual entrance to the church). They are rendered, are completely undecorated but show an interesting mix of window shapes.
The 16th century cloister, with its garth garden and arcaded walks, survives embedded and massively altered in a modern block to the north of the basilica but is inaccessible to visitors.
Many visitors to this church enter by the side entrance, in Via Santa Prassede. However, I recommend firstly going south along that street and first right round the corner to view the original portico or main entrance gateway in Via San Martino ai Monti.
The structure amounts to a porch, and other Roman churches have them -see Santa Maria in Cosmedin, San Clemente and San Cosimato in Trastevere. The technical name for it is a prothyrum. As it stands, it has a pair of ancient grey granite columns with Ionic capitals, supporting a short barrel vault now in rough brick but originally plastered. Above this is a little flat-roofed chamber or portarius, intended for the church's gatekeeper, which was apparently rebuilt by St Charles Borromeo.
The column capitals are of different ages; the one on the right is ancient, but the one on the left was carved when the basilica was erected. The column bases are Doric capitals turned over. Over the actual doorway is a relief of St Praxedis, also part of the Borromeo restoration.
The prothyrum entrance is nowadays very rarely, if ever, open. To get to the former atrium, you have to go up the Via San Prassede, in through the church's side entrance (which is 20th century and has no features of note) and back out again through the front door. (Hopefully this will be found open, but may not be in winter or in bad weather). You will find yourself in a courtyard.
A double flight of steps, commissioned by St Charles Borromeo, in 1575, runs down to the other side of the prothyrum entrance. You may notice that it runs at an angle to the major axis of the courtyard.
This courtyard was completely derelict in the 19th century, and allegedly was used for dumping unwanted items before being restored and cleaned up in 1937. It occupies the site of the former atrium, which was so thoroughly destroyed in the Middle Ages that scholars used to doubt its existence. It used to extend towards the prothyrum as far as the first major flight of stairs, and if you look in the bottom left hand corner (facing the church) you will see two columns belonging to it now embedded in the wall. Two other columns revealed in the 1937 restoration were moved to stand uselessly either side of the church entrance. The row of holes across the façade used to house the ends of the beams for the roof of the covered atrium walkway on this side.
On the walls by the staircase are four limestone slabs showing traces of paintwork, which are thought to have been part of the original furnishings of the sanctuary. On the right wall is also the inscription commemorating Borromeo's restoration, preserved when the window it was on was destroyed.
As it now is, since 1937, the façade is a brick cliff. It used to be a simple and dignified late Renaissance work by
Longhi, of which the doorway survives. Above it was the window mentioned above with three round-headed lights, the central one being larger, topped by a small triangular pediment and flanked curlicues. There were a pair of small round-headed windows flanking this, near the corners of the façade.
When the stucco was stripped, evidence was found for the three identically sized round-headed windows that were restored and are now to be seen. Interestingly, the window relieving arches are double -a hint that the builders were concerned about their incompetence. The geometric window mullions or transennae are Muñoz's trademark. The façade was originally decorated with mosaics, but now only a few fragments by the left window remain. It is unknown what the scheme was; a large figurative scheme (as is now on the façade of San Paolo fuori le Mura) would have suffered fore-shortening owing to the restricted viewpoint of the atrium.
The rough niche inserted into the gable might once have contained a statue. It is flanked by a pair of little windows which open into the attic above the nave ceiling. The roofline has a limestone cornice with modillions (little brackets) in between two rows of dentillation.
The Borromini entrance could be described as early Baroque. It has a molded doorcase, and a raised triangular pediment over a swag and a pair of lions' head masks.
The bell-tower over the left arm of the transept was built in the 12th century. It is invisible from any public place -you need a helecopter to view it. A squat edifice in brick, it has three storeys above the aisle roofline. The first two storeys are undifferentiated and undecorated, but the third one is distinguished by a cornice. It has two double-arched apertures on each face, arranged horizontally, and the archivolts of the arches are connected by a string course. Each double arch is separated by a small limestone column with an impost.
The tower has a tiled pyramidal cap. The north face now inserts into the modern school building to the north. A window survives with original transennae, which Muñoz used as a model for the 1937 windows in the façade.
The church's original basilical plan, with a nave of twelve bays separated from two side aisles eleven ancient columns on each side, has been obscured by the need to strengthen the structure. Hence, the nave is now divided into three equal portions by truss arches, and these spring from massive pillars which enclose six of the columns. These pillars used to have applied pilasters supporting the trabeation on each side, and fragments of these survive; they are of the de' Medici restoration in 1594.
The floor was laid in the two years from 1916, in faithful and successful imitation of the Cosmatesque style. By
tradition, the large porphyry roundel near the bottom of the nave marks the site of a well into which (according to the legend) St Praxedis poured the blood of martyrs which she had sponged up. You can see her doing this in the main altarpiece in the apse.
The granite columns seem to form a set, and must have been pillaged from a very high-status ancient building. Their 16th century stucco capitals, in a debased Composite style, contain oaks and cockerels; these are thought to refer to Pope Gregory XIV (1590-1) and Cardinal Antonio Maria Gallo (1600-2), and if so help to date the work.
The entablatures of the trabeation that they support were also scavenged from an ancient structure.
Because of the truss arches there are three separate nave ceilings, inserted in 1864. They are coffered in gold and light grey, and each has six rectangular lacunae which display gold stars on a dark blue background.
The wall containing the main entrance displays frescoes of the Annunciation, commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro de' Medici after 1592 and executed by Stefano Pieri (1542-1629). The angel is to the left of the door, and Our Lady on the right. Above these are two monochromes in sepia, depicting scenes from the life of Moses by Giovanni Balducci. Above these in turn are two angels on plinths bearing the Medici coat-of-arms. The doorway is flanked by a pair of shallow pilasters with apostles and putti (see the next section for these), and above it is the coat-of-arms of Pope Clement VIII set on a trompe-l'oeil segmental pediment and flanked by allegorical figures of Faith and Justice, attributed to B. Fazzini. There used to be more fresco work above. However removing the plaster from the façade let the damp in to cause damage, and after 1969 the damaged portion was simply whitewashed.
The fresco work on the walls of the central nave are part of the same scheme as that on the counterfaçade, and each of the eight units has a similar layout as to be found there -that is, a large fresco flanked by a pair of much smaller monochromes on which stand a pair of angels on plinths bearing the Medici coat-of-arms. These angels carry symbolic items referring back to the main scene.
The eight main frescoes illustrate scenes from the Passion of Christ. Starting clockwise from the top left hand corner, firstly we have Christ Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, with the monochromes depicting scenes from the life of Joseph the Patriarch. The angels carry olives, because of the trees in the garden. The work is by Giovanni Balducci -Il Cosci.
The second scene, by Paris Nogari, features The Arrest of Christ and the angels carry the ropes with which he was bound. The third, by Girolamo Massei, depicts Christ Before Caiaphas, and the angels have books of the Law by which he was condemned. The fourth is Christ Before Pilate by Agostino Ciampelli, and the angels carry the sceptre of secular power.
Crossing to the right hand side, we have The Scourging of Christ by Ciampelli again, with the Column of the Scourging featured and the angels carrying a rope and whip. The next is Christ Crowned with Thorns by Baldassare Croce (?), with the angels carrying the levers used to tighten the crown. The next is Ecce Homo by Ciampelli, with the angels holding the crown of thorns and the basin in which Pilate washed his hands. Finally, Christ Meets Veronica by Balducci again, with the angels carrying Veronica's Veil and the Title.
The pillars have frescoes of the Apostles by Balducci, surmounted by putti bearing tablets on which is the Creed; another two flank the entrance door in the counterfaçade.
Triumphal arch mosaic
The two mosaics on the triumphal arch and the apse are from the time of Pope St Paschal, and in them you can see his monogram. They are in the Byzantine style and, with the Chapel of St Zeno, are one of the most important examples of the Roman school of that style. The overall theme is the Second Coming of Christ and the End of Time, based on the description given in the "Apocalypse of St John" (Book of Revelation).
On the triumphal arch, the one closest to the nave,The Heavenly Jerusalem is depicted as a walled and gated enclosure with its golden walls set with jewels. In it, Christ accompanied by two angels is venerated by two queues of apostles and saints; to the left, the first two are Our Lady and St John the Baptist, and to the right the first is St Praxedis. At the ends of the queues are Moses and Elijah. The city gates are guarded by another pair of angels, and a further two escort more saints through flowery meadows, with the right hand group led by SS Peter and Paul.
Below this composition, on either side of the arch, are two crowds of people holding crowns and palm branches. These are the multitude of the martyrs. These two panels are the ones seriously damaged by having relic cupboards inserted into them by St Charles Borromeo; although this is to be regretted, the chased bronze doors of the cupboards, with tondi featuring portraits of saints, is worth a glance.
The intrados (underside) of the arch depics flower garlands rising up to Paschal's monogram at the keystone, and was re-done in the 19th century.
On the piers below the mosaic are two monuments. That on the right belongs to Cardinal Quirini, 1742, and that on the left to Pico della Mirandola, 1714.
The mosaic in the conch of the apse looks very much like the apse mosaic in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, also commissioned by Pope St Paschal, and is based on the earlier work at Santi Cosma e Damiano.
Here, Christ stands among the clouds, and is being awarded the wreath of victory from the hand of the Father. He is flanked by SS Peter and Paul, holding their arms round the shoulders of SS Prassede and Pudentiana. The two women are shown as Byzantine princesses, clad in cloth-of-gold with pearls, sapphires and a few rubies. They have red shoes instead of jewelled ones, indicating their status as princesses not empresses (that title belongs to Our Lady).
To the right is a deacon, of uncertain identity but claimed to represent the martyr St Zeno. To the left Pope St Paschal is seen holding a model of the church. The mosaic can be dated to the reign of St Paschal since he has a square halo, showing that he was alive when it was made. The composition is flanked by a pair of date palms, and in the palm tree next to the pope there is a phoenix, a symbol of immortality.
The blue band at the base of the composition is a common symbol of baptism, and here it is even identified as JORDANES, the River Jordan in which the sacrament of baptism was instituted.
Below this, the outer rim of the conch depicts The Lamb of God with twelve sheep, either symbolising the Apostles or the totality of the faithful. The sheep are emerging from the holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and the Lamb is standing on a sort of green carpet thought to represent either Eden with the Four Rivers of Paradise flowing from it, or the Gospels with the Four Evangelists as the rivers.
The epigraph on the rim of the conch records the foundation of the church by Pope St Paschal I, and the dedication to St Praxedes:
EMICAT AULA PIAE VARIIS DECORATA METALLIS
PRAXEDIS D(OMI)NO SUPER AETHRA PLACENTIS HONORE
PONTIFICIS SUMMI STUDIO PASCHALIS ALUMNI
SEDIS APOSTOLICAE PASSIM QUI CORPORA CONDENS
PLURIMA S(AN)C(T)ORUM SUBTER HAEC MOENIA PONIT
FRETUS UT HIS LIMEN MEREATUR ADIRE POLORUM
meaning: "The hall beams, decorated with various (precious) metals, in honour of the saintly Praxedes who has found pleasure with the Lord in heaven above, through the zeal of the Supreme Pontiff Paschal, raised to the Apostolic See, who collected the bodies of numerous saints and laid them beneath these walls, trusting that by doing this he merits to cross the threshold of Heavens."
Finally, on the outer edge are two garlands converging on Paschal's monogram, as on the triumphal arch except this is original.
The wall containing the conch has, at the arch keystone, the Lamb of God on a throne under which is the Book with Seven Seals of the Apocalypse (Rev 5:1). To left and right are the Seven Lampstands (Rev 1:12), then four angels and then four winged creatures which are the symbols of the Evangelists derived from the Apocalypse (Rev 4:7). Below, to the sides of the arch, are twenty-four elders with white beards and holding crowns (Rev 4:4).
The sanctuary layout is 18th century, completed in 1734. The architect was Francesco Ferrari (not the more famous artist, who was dead by then). Two staircases of rosso antico marble access the presbyterial area, either side of the entrance to the confessio created then. The ciborium or baldacchino has an ogee cupola on four sets of triplet columns, the outer columns of porphyry and the inner of yellow Siena marble. The porphyry columns almost certainly came from the mediaeval baldacchino. The stucco angels on top of the columns are by Giuseppe Rusconi, and the inside of the cupola is decorated with frescoes by Antonio Bicchierai. The altar itself is Ferrari's design, as are the late Baroque wooden choir stalls in the apse. He also blocked up the last surviving window of the five in Paschal's apse, and replaced it with an oil painting of St Praxedes Gathering the Blood of the Martyrs, painted c. 1730 by Domenico Muratori. The renderings of SS Peter and Paul are also by Bicchierai.
In the side walls of the sanctuary are four identical marble doorways, with molded doorcases and raised segmental pediments. Three of these are actually false, and the only genuine one is at bottom left which leads into the choir above. In between these doors are six very interesting ancient marble columns, which used to support the arcades inserted here in 1489 and which were later hidden by blocking walls. They are 1st or 2nd century AD, and might have come from Greece. The ribbing on them is interrupted by bands of ancanthus leaves. Their capitals are mediaeval.
Above the doors and columns on each side are two choirs for the monks. The left hand one contains the church organ, built by the firm of Tronci in 1884, and the right hand one has a painting of the Assumption by Francesco Gai (1835-1917).
A staircase leading to the confessio lies between the steps to the sanctuary, and going down it you find yourself in a corridor with a very shallow barrel vault and two ancient sarcophagi on either side, on top of each other. This 18th century corridor replaced the destroyed room in which the sarcophagi were found, having been translated here in 822 by Pope St Paschal I. The alleged relics of SS Prassede and Pudentiana are kept in one of them (note the inscription on the rim) -it was obviously not originally intended for the two saints. In with them, there is also allegedly a sponge said to have been used by the sisters to collect the blood of martyrs.
In the three other sarcophagi are relics from martyrs moved here from the catacombs. A sarcophagus on the left has a relief showing Christ as the Good Shepherd and Jonah resting on the beach after his encounter with the sea monster - both were popular motifs in early Christian art. Jonah is also depicted at the entrance to the crypt; the lintel above the doorway has a relief of Jonah being swallowed by the whale, taken from the 3rd century sarcophagus of a woman called Ulpia, whom the inscription identifies as "the rarest of wives". All four sarcophagi have wavy decoration called strigillate, from the Latin for a cut-throat razor. The shelves separating the sarcophagi have Cosmatesque decoration, and are thought to have belonged to the original mediaeval high altar.
The altar at the end of the corridor has Cosmatesque decoration on its frontal also, and probably also came from the old altar. The pair of marble lampstands to either side also incorporate mediaeval carvings of fantastic creatures, thought to have belonged to the chancel screen. Above the altar is an 18th century fresco which has rotted badly, apparently a copy of one found in the destroyed shrine room.
The semi-circular corridor that leads off to the left and right of the altar belongs to the original basilica, and displays several fragments of early Christian tombs and epigraphs. The staircase at the right hand end is modern, by Muñoz.
Chapel of the Cross
The chapels off the side aisles will be described in clockwise order, starting from the top of the right hand aisle at the side entrance.
The Cappella del Crocefisso, Chapel of the Crucifix, occupies the right hand end of the original transept and was created at the end of the 13th century. Back then, it was dedicated to All Saints but was re-dedicated at some stage to the Crucifixion (if while looking at the nave frescoes, you wondered why there wasn't a Crucifixion scene -the cycle was meant to lead you here). The chapel was restored from a state of dereliction by Muñoz in 1927, and contains several items of carved stonework found when the nave floor was re-laid in 1916. Some of these are from the 9th century furnishings of the church. Especially, note the heavy marble slabs thought to have been plutei belonging to a schola cantorum.
The altarpiece is a medieval painted crucifix, and attempts to date it vary from the 13th to the 15th century. The 14th century is the consensus. Tradition claims that it was here when St Bridget of Sweden used to pray in the church in the 14th century, and that it once spoke to her. (It is possible that the crucifix we see today is more recent, and replaces the one St Bridget saw here; also, the story is told about other crucifixes in the city, notably one at San Paolo fuori le Mura).
The altar contains the tomb of Cardinal Anchero Pantaléon, Archbishop of Troyes and nephew of Pope Urban IV, who was assassinated in the chapel by a mob in 1286. The chapel would have needed re-consecration after such an event, and this is possibly when it was dedicated to the Crucifixion. The monument shows the cardinal reclining on a draped tomb embellished with Cosmatesque decoration, and is a very fine work. The sculptor is unknown, but the work has been attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio on limited stylistic evidence and the decoration to Giovanni Cosmati. The epigraph is on a tablet above the effigy.
Madonna della Salute
Next to this chapel is the usual entrance to the church, and in the lobby is enshrined a 13th century icon which is the subject of devotion as the Madonna della Salute. A row of suffering pot plants on the shelf below it demonstrates the popular affection.
Next to the entrance lobby is a small chapel containing the tomb of Cardinal Alain de Coëtivy who was the titular from 1448 to 1474. The artist was Andrea Bregno, and it is thought that the original locatin was elsewhere. The deceased is portrayed lying on his bier, and over him are half-length relief sculptures of SS Peter and Paul in separate arched niches. The pilasters on either side have little statues of St Praxedis on the left, holding her sponge and basin with which she mopped up the blood of martyrs, and St Pudentiana on the right holding the more generic symbols of book and palm branch.
Another monument here is to Federico Colonna, commander of the Papal army, of 1711.
There is a small souvenir shop now located in this chapel. Among the normal souvenirs are also facsimiles of the book Notizie al Pellegrino della Basilica di Santa Prassede, a pilgrim guide to the church written by Fr Benigno Davanzati in 1725. Also recommended is Paola Gallio's The Basilica of St Praxedis, in English and published 2009.
This chapel has a doorway passing into the Chapel of St Zeno, painted by Francesco Gai in 1863 to replace a decayed 1585 fresco showing the Flagellation of Christ. Here, the realistic depiction shows how the little Column of the Flagellation venerated in the church is meant to have functioned.
The chapel was dedicated to St Julian with an altarpiece by an artist listed as Baffi, but is presumably now deconsecrated.
The pillar nearest the sanctuary in the right hand aisle displays three important works.
Firstly, on the entrance side is a stone tablet bearing a long epigraph commemorating the action by Pope Paschal in moving the relics of allegedly 2 300 martyrs from here to the catacombs. The tablet is part of the original furnishings of the 9th century basilica, with the lettering well carved, and used to be in the sanctuary. However, it was moved to here by St Charles Borromeo. In the process, it seems to have been smashed; the lower portion is not original, but was copied at some stage (then, or 15th century?) from the original text. The marbles used are different, and the copy is on a slab of precious pavonazzetto.
There is a fresco on the aisle face of the pillar, depicting a Calvary which dates from somewhere around 1300.
One of Bernini's earliest works, a funerary bust of Giovanni Battista Santoni, can be seen in the monument on the side of the pillar facing the main entrance. The rest of the decoration, including the ornate framing of the epitaph with its winged putto's heads, is thought now not to be by him. The bust was carved when the artist was about 22 years old (1613-16), and shows a certain naivety. Some scholars claim an even earlier date, about 1609; the uncertainty is because the monument was commissioned well after after the cardinal died in 1592.
There is a Swiss interest here, as the cardinal was Papal legate to Switzerland.
The Chapel of St Zeno
The next chapel off the right hand aisle is the Chapel of St Zeno. This incredible and rare structure has attracted much recent attention on the part of writers puzzling over it, some genuinely scholarly and some crackpot. It was built by Pope St Paschal I in honour of his mother Theodora to serve as her mausoleum, and here were also enshrined the relics of St Zeno which were among those brought from the catacombs. The plan of the chapel actually imitates a cubiculum (small room) in the catacombs.
The mosaics which completely cover the interior are described as being a Roman take on the Byzantine style, but scholars have pointed out that the symbolisms might not correspond to the standard Byzantine ones.
The entry for the pope in the Liber Pontificalis describes how the pope established an indulgence of freeing a soul from Purgatory for every five Masses celebrated on the altar. For this reason, the chapel was later dedicated to Santa Maria Liberatrix Nostra a Poenis Inferni (Holy Mary Saving Us From the Pains of Hell) and called the Hortus Paradisi -presumably because of the splendour of its mosaics. This particular devotion to Our Lady became popular in Rome, as witnessed by the church of Santa Maria Liberatrice a Monte Testaccio and the demolished one of Santa Maria Liberatrice al Foro Romano.
The present arrangment of three doorways, with two side doors connecting to the Coëtivy and Pillar chapels, is as a result of a later restoration, possibly 15th century.
Nowadays, the chapel gets many discerning visitors. As a result, the lighting is pay-on-demand. Insert a one euro coin into the machine outside for five minutes of light.
The little edifice has a very odd layout, and scholars have not been able to make sense of it. The floorplan is square, with a large rectangular niche containing the altar with a rectangular window over it. The side walls have two deep arched niches facing each other (now doorways), and over these are two small, deep rectangular niches described as blocked windows. The oddity is that the large and small niches are displaced from the centre of the walls in the direction of the altar, and no-one has been able to explain why.
Each of the walls is in the form of an equal-sized arch, supporting a little saucer dome with integrated pendentives. The whole structure is slightly out of true, which you can tell from noticing how the lines of mosaic following the arches wander about.
Another mystery is why St Zeno was chosen to be enshrined here. Nobody knows who he was, and no popular devotion to him ever developed. The original historical sources confuse several saints having this name, and mistakes by scholars have made the situation worse.
The present consensus is expressed in the revised Roman martyrology, which has this entry for 14 February: "At Rome, in the catacomb of St Praetextatus on the Appian Way, St Zeno, martyr of an uncertain date".
Previously scholars had equated him with a deacon called Zeno, martyred with a priest who happened to be the famous St Valentine and mentioned on epigraphs, so the deacon in the apse mosaic was identified with him. This identification is no longer regarded with favour.
Pope Paschal's entrance façade is spectacular. Firstly, there is the doorway which is assembled from ancient spolia. Two small ancient columns, one in serpentine (the ancient lapis Lacedaemonius, from Sparta in Greece) and one in black granite (an extremely valuable item in ancient times), have intricately carved bases (which look like recarved Doric capitals) and Ionic capitals. They support a cornice formed from a fragment of an entablature, featuring a length of frieze and architrave both intricately carved as well. The lintel of the doorway has a dedicatory inscription: Paschalis praesulis opus decor, fulgit in aula, quod pia optulit, vota studuit reddere D[e]o. ("The beautiful work of the prelate Paschal, gleaming as a divine dwelling; the pious oaths which he made, he took care to discharge to God.").
Above the entrance, there is a large round-headed aperture into the chapel. On the cornice in front of this is a cantharus or ancient vase used in pagan ceremonies, decorated with strigillations. This is thought to be the original funerary urn, although restored in the 18th century. It has been described as containing Theodora's ashes, which is a crass mistake (Christians only took up cremation a hundred years ago); rather, her body was probably buried somewhere, then the skeleton dug up, the bones broken into little pieces and put in here.
The aperture inserts into a large mosaic dominated by blue and gold. Around the aperture are eleven clipei or tondi in a golden horseshoe, depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary at the top and ten saints of uncertain identity (the top two pointed out as Zeno and Valentine). The blue arch surrounding this has thirteen tondi showing Christ and the apostles, and the last two tondi in the upper corners are thought to be Moses and Elijah. The rectangular panels at the bottom corners are Popes Paschal and his successor Eugene II (?); the garish colours give away that these belong to the 19th century.
Floor to ceiling
On entering, you are overwhemed by the glitter of gold. The tesserae of the golden mosaic are made out of clear glass with gold leaf on their backs, and are set at slightly different angles to create a glitter instead of a sheen.
The opus sectile floor has a porphyry roundel in the middle, and each corner has a grey granite column with a gilded Corinthian capital supporting a plinth. This arrangement is a trompe-l'oeil, because it looks as if the four mosaic angels in the ceiling mosaic are standing on them. They support a tondo showing Christ Pantokrator on a starry blue background. The bases of the columns are intricately carved.
Altar and apse
The altar is not original. It supports a gilded wooden shrine of the 17th century, framing a round-headed niche, containing a mosaic of the Madonna and the Divine Child being venerated by SS Pudentiana and Praxedis. Christ holds a scroll with the words EGO SUM LUX, "I am the light (of the world)" (John 8:12). This work dates to about 1275.
Two spirally fluted alabaster columns support a horizontal entablature. Behind the entablature, and damaged by its installation, is an original lunette mosaic depiction of the Transfiguration. Christ is with Moses and Elijah, accompanied by the apostles (left to right) Peter, John and James (the latter only has a hand surviving).
Above the apse is a large window, and the original mosaic around this features Our Lady and St John the Baptist venerating it. This is fascinating theologically, as the light from the window is equated with Christ.
The intrados of the apse niche features vine scrolls with flowers and little animals; many visitors miss this.
Left hand wall
The main mosaic panel to the left feature SS Agnes, Pudentiana and Praxedis (they are labelled), dressed as Byzantine princesses processing with offerings to the altar over a meadow with flowering shrubs (the full-face rendering is a Byzantine iconographic trick; you are meant to imagine them one behind the other).
The tympanum mosaic in the doorway niche features the Lamb of God presiding over the Rivers of Paradise, from which drink four deer (in allusion to Psalm 42:1). Below this is a damaged mosaic featuring, from left to right, Theodora the mother of Paschal, SS Praxedis and Pudentiana and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Theodora is depicted with a square halo, indicating that the image was made when she was alive. It is inscribed Theodora Episcopa, literally "Bishopess Theodora" but here indicating that she was the bishop's mother (some recent idealogues, utterly ignorant of Church history, have tried to claim this as proof that women were ordained as bishops in the 9th century).
If you compare this portrait of Theodora with that of her son Paschal in the apse, you will see that the mosaicists successfully captured a family likeness.
On the intrados of the niche arch is a depiction of The Harrowing of Hell. Christ is breaking down the gates of Hell to rescue Adam and Eve and other Old Testament figures waiting for him. This is a motif fit for a funerary chapel, as it symbolises not only death as the beginning of a new life, but also the hope of salvation through the endless mercy of Christ. It first appears in the 7th century, and became very popular in Rome in the next two centuries.
Right hand wall
The right hand wall features the apostles John, Andrew and James also on a flowery meadow. Here they are not processing towards the altar but towards the small niche, which gives scholars pause for thought. Did the small niches contain something important?
In the tympanum of the doorway niche below is Christ flanked by two saints, traditionally described as Zeno and Valentine but not labelled as such.
The wall above the entrance features SS Peter and Paul on a third meadow and acclaiming an empty throne with a purple cushion, on which is a cross. This alludes to Christ absent in his visible body, but about to return to take his place as ruler of the universe in the Second Coming. The iconographic device is called a hetoimasia in Greek, meaning "preparation".
Chapel of the Pillar
From St Zeno's chapel, you can enter the little sanctuary chapel of the Pillar of the Scourging. This relic was brought from the Holy Land in 1223 by Giovanni Cardinal Colonna after he served as Papal legate in Syria during the Fifth Crusade. It is venerated as the pillar to which Christ was tied when he was whipped before his crucifixion, but it is unlikely that it is authentic. The marble (?) used, and the execution of the carving, is of too high a quality for use in punishing criminals, and there is another Pillar of the Scourging, of a more realistic form, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The pillar is damaged, and you need to refer to the painting in the Coëtivy chapel to appreciate its original form. It used to have a vertical iron ring attached to its top, and hence its original function seems to have been as a bollard in a very high status assembly area where areas needed to be roped off. The stone used seems otherwise unknown in Rome, and looks like a white marble with dark crimson inclusions. It has, however, been decribed as a jasper. The base and top have had chunks knocked off to form separate relics, notably in 1585 when Pope Sixtus V gave a bit to the city of Padua. Also, the pillar has been broken in the middle and fixed with cement. The original iron ring was given to King Louis IX of France in exchange for three thorns from the Crown of Thorns (one of which is at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme).
The original home of the column was the sacristy, and St Bridget of Sweden often came here to pray before it. However, in 1699 the little chapel was fitted out for it and subsequently the Flagellation of Christ was solemnly liturgically celebrated on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. This was the only day in the year when women were allowed in the chapel until the 20th century, because of the former belief that the touch of a menstruating woman made things ritually unclean.
The chapel was re-fitted in 1898, and is now rather bare. The pillar itself is enclosed in a large gilded bronze reliquary in the form of a domed kiosk, which was designed by Duilio Cambellotti. He was also responsible for the four bronze hanging lamps
Regardless of the relic's authenticity, this chapel does provide a good setting for contemplation concerning the Passion of Christ.
Chapel of St Pius X
The next chapel off the right-hand aisle is now dedicated to Pope St Pius X. Before 1595 there was a chapel here dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, but in that year it was rebuilt by Federico Cesi as a funerary chapel for his family. The vault and side walls have paintings by Guglielmo Cortese, Il Borgognone. The main vault fresco features God the Father, while the lunettes feature SS Paschal I, Philip Neri, Frances of Rome and Firminius of Amiens. The side walls have The Adoration of the Magi and The Future Birth of Mary Revealed to SS Joachim and Anne. A pair of bronze busts of SS Peter and Paul are beyond these two paintings.
The side wall lunettes are by Ciro Ferri, with unusual subjects. The left hand one shows The Frangipani Family Attack Pope Gelasius II, an event that took place while he was saying Mass in this church in 1118. The right hand one shows Pulcheria the Empress Erecting a Statue of Our Lady (also claimed to be St Helena, but no such scene is in the legends associated with her). This artist also apparently collaborated with Cortese in executing the vault.
The chapel was re-dedicated to Pope St Pius X in 1955, and vestments and articles of clothing that belonged to him are kept in glass cases below the side paintings. The altarpiece showing him, by Arnaldo Bartoli, replaced one showing The Deposition of Christ by Giovanni de' Vecchi, which was banished to the sacristy. The altar frontal and the aedicule with its black and white marble columns are original. The stained glass window above has the coat-of-arms of the Cesi family.
On the floor in front of the chapel is a tomb-slab of a mediaeval pharmacist called Giovanni da Montopoli. He died in Rome as a pilgrim, so is dressed as one. The date is not given, but the style is of the end of the 13th century.
Chapel of Our Lady of the Rosary
This chapel was consecrated in 1728 and used to be dedicated to St Bernard degli Uberti(1055-1133), who was a monk and abbot of Vallombrosa before becoming a cardinal and bishop of Parma. It was rededicated to Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompei in 1886 and its vault fresco re-done, but the altarpiece by Filippo Luzzi (1665-1720) has been left alone. It shows the saint preventing the River Po from flooding the city by giving a blessing. The Madonna and Child look on from heaven, which is probably why the work was kept here. The artist painted in a very realistic style, even down to the bunions of his model for Our Lady -a problem that it is fairly certain she didn't have.
The left hand wall depicts St Peter Igneus, an early Vallombrosan monk and disciple of St John Gualbert, who allegedly proved that the bishop of Florence was a simoniac by walking through a fire unharmed. (St John Gualbert and his followers hated simony so much that they taught that sacraments administered by simoniac priests and bishops were invalid -a seriously erroneous opinion). The work is by Angelo Soccorsi.
The painting on the right hand wall shows the execution of Tesauro Beccaria, a Vallombrosan monk and cardinal who was beheaded in Florence for favouring the Ghibelline (pro-papal) party. He used to be regarded by the Vallumbrosans as a martyr, but without official sanction. The artist was Domenico Pestrini (1678-1740).
The altar frontal shows fine pietra dura work, amounting to marquetry in stone.
On the wall at the start of the aisle outside this chapel is a monument to Silvio Santacroce, of 1603.
Shrine of the Bed of St Praxedis
At the bottom of the left hand aisle is a black marble slab, which is fixed into the wall within an 18th century aedicule inserted into an arched niche. It was said that St Praxedes used to sleep on it, and that it was used as the slab for her original tomb. Above is an epigraph topped by an oversized segmental pediment and flanked by two volutes on the diagonal. These rest on entablatures supported by a pair of Corinthian columns, and decorated with a pair of flaming urn finials.
The pair of frescoes flanking the aedicule show SS Pudens and Sabina, the legendary parents of St Praxedis.
A painted wooden statue of the saint is usually kept in front of the slab. She is shown kneeling and squeezing a blood-soaked sponge into a vase -a charmingly naïve piece in refreshing contrast, perhaps, to the great artworks in this church.
In the floor near here is the tomb-slab of Giovanni Carbone, 1388. The deceased is shown in light armour, with his feet on a pair of little pet dogs (which were used as bedwarmers at the time -dog fleas don't bite humans).
Chapel of St Peter
This chapel was originally erected in 1721, but was gutted and refitted in 1735. It is dedicated to St Peter the Apostle. The anonymous 18th century altarpiece has as its subject St Peter Visits the Household of St Pudens. On the left hand side wall is St John the Baptist Points Out the Lamb of God, and on the right hand wall is St Emerentiana's Vision of St Agnes. The story behind the latter work is that St Emerentiana went to pray at the grave of her sister St Agnes after the latter hand been martyred, and had a vision of the saint inviting her to come to heaven immediately before being spotted by pagans and stoned to death. These two works are by Giuseppe Severoni.
Chapel of St Charles Borromeo
The second chapel on the left hand side is dedicated to St Charles Borromeo. It was built in 1735, and is a white-painted room on the plan of a chamfered rectangle. There is an octagonal dome with a lantern (the dome is tiled on the outside). The altarpiece, by Stefano Parrocel, shows St Charles Thanking God for the End of a Plague in Milan. The angel above him is sheathing a fiery sword, and the acolyte holding the crucifix has no shoes on because there has just been a barefoot penitential procession.
The side walls have two works by Ludovico Stern (1709-77) showing the saint in ecstasy, one while contemplating the Blessed Sacrament and the othere while meditating on the Crucifixion (the angels are holding the Instruments of the Passion).
In the chamfered corners are little niches with scalloped conchs, and these contain stucco statues of the Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude. They echo the famous frescoes by Domenichino on the dome pendentives in the church of San Carlo ai Catinari.
The little fold-stool in the glass case was used by the saint.
The third chapel off the left hand aisle is the Cappella Olgiata, overshadowed by the Chapel of St Zeno opposite but itself an important work. It was designed as a funerary chapel by Martino Longhi the Elder for Bernardo Olgiati, who intended it for his Como banking family which had scored a spectacular success at Rome, and was finished in 1587. It is large, on a rectangular plan with Ionic pilasters supporting an entablature on which rests the cross-vault. This has four lunettes, the side ones of which contain windows. The overall decorative scheme is again in white, but the vault is spectacularly frescoed by the Cavalier d'Arpino.
The altarpiece, by Federico Zuccari, depicts St Veronica Meets Christ Carrying His Cross. This is flanked by two saints by the Cavalier, the left being St Andrew and the right, St Bernard of Clairvaux who was the founder's patron.
The vault has a central fresco of the Ascension of Christ, with the main arms of the cross-vaulting depicting the prophets Moses, Jeremiah, Ezechiel and Micah with Sibyls. The lunette vauls show four Doctors of the Church: SS Gregory the Great, Augustine, Jerome and Ambrose. The panels over the entrance and altar show the Resurrection of Christ and the Assumption of Our Lady. In between the vault and entablature are eight anonymous monochromes depicting episodes of the Passion (these are thought to be by the Cavalier as well, but their poor condition precludes conclusive attribution).
Finally, over the door is The Last Supper, on the right hand wall is The Risen Christ Appears to St Mary Magdalen, and on the left hand wall is The Road to Emmaus.
The table is preserved here at which St Charles Borromeo used to give donations to poor people in the courtyard.
Chapel of St John Gualbert
The last chapel on the left hand side is dedicated to St John Gualbert, founder of the Vallumbrosans. This was a project long in the execution, because it was commissioned by Pope Pius VI at the end of the 18th century with the architect being Giuseppe Camporese. The work was stopped by the French occupation by Napoleon, and only re-started under Pope Gregory XVI in the mid 19th century. The interior was completely re-fitted in 1933 by Ernesto Leschiutta, the artist being Giulio Bargellini. The edifice is harmoniously neo-Baroque with an elliptical dome lit by eight windows in its drum, and there is an apse with conch lit by two windows with transennae.
The paintings and mosaics are in the realistic Thirties style soon to be made deeply unfashionable by the patronage of Hitler and Stalin, but here seen at its best. The apse mosaic shows the saint venerated by angels, in a neo-Byzantine manner, while the apse conch mosaic shows Vallumbrosan monks and nuns venerating Our Lady's Assumption into heaven.
The right hand picture shows the saint conquering heresies, while the left hand one shows him receiving his vocation as a monk. He had been a typical young noble knight of Florence, until his brother was murdered. He assembled his crew to hunt down the killer and, when they had cornered him and were about to turn him into dog food, the miscreant stretched out his arms in the form of a cross and the saint forgave him on the spot. The picture depicts the exact moment of enlightenment.
The sacristy was built by St Charles Borromeo (his coat-of-arms is in the vault), and contains some important artworks.
The altarpiece shows The Vision of St John Gualbert at the Crucifix, by Agostino Ciampelli of 1594. After forgiving the murderer, the saint (the one on the right) was praying at a crucifix when Christ nodded at him in approbation, whereupon he left his military kit and went off to be a monk. Below the main painting are panels with scenes from his subsequent life.
Also kept here is a Supper at Bethany by the same artist.
On the left wall is the Deposition from the Cross by Giovanni de' Vecchi, the altarpiece discarded from the Cesi Chapel. It is a work of superb quality, and it is a pity that it was moved.
Next to it is The Flagellation of Christ, in a very realistic style. It used to be ascribed to Giulio Romano, but is now thought to be a later replacement of an original work by that artist. The musculature of the floggers is very well rendered, as is the polychrome marble floor.
On the right hand wall is St John Gualbert Finds the Site of His Monastery. It was originally next to an enormous beech tree in the Forest of Vallombrosa (the forest mostly survives thanks to the monks, and is an important nature reserve now in charge of the State).
Above the entrance is a portrait of Torello of Poppi (1201-82) by Antonio Raffaele Calliano (1785-1824). He was a Tuscan hermit from Poppi who, after being a brigand as a youth, lived walled up in a cell for sixty years and was buried at the Vallumbrosan monastery of San Fidele. He was not a consecrated religious, and both the Vallumbrosans and the Franciscans claimed that he was affiliated with them. He has been venerated as a patron of women giving birth, but his veneration has no official status.
Also here is a depiction by Francesco Gai of St John Gualbert Making His Testament. The saint is shown as about to die of extreme old age.
The sacristy preserves two other relics of Our Lord: A small piece of the Seamless Garment, and a small portion of the Crown of Thorns.
When the campanile was erected in the late 13th century, its ground floor was fitted out as a chapel but has not been one for centuries. Its original frescoes were discovered in 1808, but are in poor condition and are not viewable by visitors. They feature scenes from the legends of various martyrs, and fortunately Armellini transcribed three surviving fragments of captions at the end of the 19th century. They are (H stands for hic in Latin, or "here", SCO is sancto, SCS is sanctis):
H UBI SCS IULIANUS FUSTIBUS CEDITUR, H UBI PUER CELSIUS SCO IULIANO [...], H UBI CELSUS CREDIDIT DOMINO [...] SCO IULIANO, H UBI LEO IGNEM [...] ES [...].
H [...] SEPULTA EST [...], H UBI SCS IULIANUS IN IGNEM ASSUS EST, H UBI MARCIANUS ASSI MARTYRIS [...], H UBI [...] CURRUNT IGNE CREMARI.
H UBI NUMERIANUS IMP IUSSIT SCM CRYSANTU IN CATASTA EX [...], H [...]VA SCS CRYSANTUS ET D[...], H UBI NUMERIANUS IMP AREN[...] PRAECIPTAR, H [...]I STORICA DARIA SEPELIVIT IARSION ET MAURUS FILIIS SUIS, H UBI STORICA DARIA COMPRENSA EST, H UBI SCS CRYSANTUS IN CARCERE AT [...]
The martyrs' legends referred to concern SS Celsus and Julian, Chrysanthus and Daria, Jason and Maurus.
According to the Diocese (July 2018), the church opens on weekdays 7.30-12.00, and 16.00-18.30.
On Sundays, the church opens at 8.00.
The church has a strict "no flash photography" policy. Those who ignore the notice at the entrance, which warns of this, are liable to be rebuked by the custodian.
Mass times are (according to the Diocese, July 2018):
Weekdays 7.30 and 18.00.
Sundays 8.00, 10.00, 11.30 and 18.00.
The feast of St Praxedes is celebrated with great solemnity on 21 July, and that of St Pudentiana on 19 May. The liturgical venerations of these two saints are now confined to their churches.
The celebration of the Easter Vigil is said to be especially beautiful in this church, as described by Georgina Masson in her Companion Guide to Rome.