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Santa Prassede (Praxedes)

Mosaics, Santa Prassede, Rome, early 9th century Mosaics from the early 9th century, under Pope Paschal. The church is dedicated to Saint Praxedes and her sister Saint Pudentiana, daughters of Saint Pudens. The sisters were martyred because they provided Christian burials for martyrs, against Roman law. A Smarthistory video with Richard Bowen (courtesy of Context Travel, and Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] STEVEN ZUCKER: This is Steven Zucker and Beth Harris, with Richard Bowen, art historian, or other historian in Rome, at Santa Prassede. So we're walking down a side street, and what's interesting is that you have really no sense that you're about to walk into a major church. RICHARD BOWEN: We've come through our courtyard and we've come into a church. I suppose the thing that grabs our attention most are the beautiful ninth century mosaics of which this church is rightly famous for. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's completely laden with the decorative. The jewel-like colors in the apse are just stunning. RICHARD BOWEN: And I think you'll find that many medieval churches tend to have this way of trying to draw you to the high altar here with the apse, of which you will have great theological moments happening. Saint Praxedes, or Santa Prassede, she and her sister, Saint Pudentiana, are daughters of a gentleman here in Rome, in the first century AD, Saint Pudens, who is actually mentioned in the Bible. So they [? ascribe, ?] if you like, here, to the earliest times of Christianity here in Rome-- STEVEN ZUCKER: By tradition they're understood to be martyrs? RICHARD BOWEN: Not only martyrs but also those that help the Christian community here, from at least the second half to the first century AD. STEVEN ZUCKER: I would imagine that the mosaics are actually quite old. BETH HARRIS: Those are ninth century. STEVEN ZUCKER: So those are ninth century. And maybe we ought to start with the apse mosaic. RICHARD BOWEN: Should we go up closer to-- [INTERPOSING VOICES] RICHARD BOWEN: What we've got here in the apse is we've got our central figure here of Jesus Christ. And then we have the heavens at the top here, with God's hand coming down here with a crown-- BETH HARRIS: The hand of God. RICHARD BOWEN: The hand of God. Then we've got this river behind, which is the River Jordan, in which Jesus Christ was baptized. And then here we've got some very interesting saints over here to our left. We've got Saint Paul, who has his hand around Saint Praxedes here-- STEVEN ZUCKER: Embracing her. RICHARD BOWEN: Embracing her, but also-- BETH HARRIS: And introducing her to Jesus. RICHARD BOWEN: Exactly, introducing her to Jesus. And then, the bit that probably is the thing that is the crowning glory in many ways of this apse mosaic, is we have Pascal I here. STEVEN ZUCKER: And is he presenting the church himself? RICHARD BOWEN: He's presenting the church himself. But not only that. He also, see, has a square halo. Now this is very, very rare in Christian iconography. Because what you see here is a saint still alive at the time of his depiction. STEVEN ZUCKER: Had he been canonized? RICHARD BOWEN: He's been canonized. It was one of the perks of the job. Then we've got the palm here, which can be a symbol of paradise and also of martyrdom. Then we've got this little phoenix here, which is obviously a symbol of the Resurrection, as well as also the peacock can be a symbol of resurrection as well. And resurrection is something, within Christianity, is of the utmost importance. Perhaps today, in the 21st century, we tend to forget the importance that the Resurrection plays, certainly within Christianity here. And if you think that, probably, people who came to this church in the ninth century AD may not have lived beyond the age of 40 or 45, then the idea of a better life afterwards is of the utmost [INAUDIBLE] importance. STEVEN ZUCKER: Because death was a far more immediate experience. And then there's this marvelous row of lamb? RICHARD BOWEN: These little lambs here. They're coming out of the two holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. And these are representative, if you like, here, of the-- BETH HARRIS: The faithful? RICHARD BOWEN: --or the apostles. OK. And of course, like, Jesus, the Lamb of God, if you like, here. So you have the symbolism here. Jesus not only being pastor and the Shepherd but also the flock of the faithful, if you like. BETH HARRIS: And of course I notice right above Pascal's name, we have a lamb on an altar. And the medallion above. RICHARD BOWEN: And the cross and almost like the chair waiting for the Second Coming. And then of course obviously you've got these angels here. And then you've got the candles-- seven candles-- STEVEN ZUCKER: And I see the evangelists in the corner as well. RICHARD BOWEN: The symbols of the evangelists. And then the elders of the Apocalypse here. Let's bear in mind this is a Byzantine-style of art. In some ways, it's quite flat in some of the mosaics that we're going to see. BETH HARRIS: Incredibly flat. RICHARD BOWEN: Which I quite like, to be honest with you. STEVEN ZUCKER: Oh it's beautiful. BETH HARRIS: I love it. STEVEN ZUCKER: And the references, for instance, to the folds of the cloth-- BETH HARRIS: Are lines. STEVEN ZUCKER: Are really-- It's just tradition. It's just line. BETH HARRIS: But my favorite part is always, when I look at Byzantine mosaics like this are those feet that seem to sort of dangle down and don't really seem to have contact with the earth. These are kind of floating, ethereal figures. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's the critical issue. Here's the really direct rejection of so much of the-- BETH HARRIS: What's around us here, in Rome, of the Classical. STEVEN ZUCKER: --that's right-- of the pre-Christian. And to see it in this context really makes sense. A kind of reinvention and a kind of abstraction of the physical. The artificial lights went off just a moment ago. And the ambient light from the sky coming in from the windows from the nave were illuminating glass tiles beautifully. And the gold was incredibly reflective. And the spirituality is so powerful. RICHARD BOWEN: Definitely. [MUSIC PLAYING]