Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Roman Martyrs in Santa Prassede

Nave of Santa Prassede

The basilica of Santa Prassede in Rome was re-built by Pope Paschal I, c.822, principally as a resting place for the relics of the Roman martyrs. He removed their remains from the various catacombs outside the walls of Rome so that they could be venerated in one place by pilgrims coming to Rome. Hence the inscription in the apse of the basilica records that "the Supreme Pontiff Paschal, raised to the Apostolic See... collected the bodies of numerous saints and laid them beneath these walls". Many centuries later, St Charles Borromeo, whose cardinalatial church this was, inserted little balconies flanking the apse where the relics could be displayed.

Ss Peter & Paul leading the Martyrs to Glory

The 9th-century mosaics in the apse and on the triumphal arch of the church depict the martyrs and saints entering into the glory of the new Jerusalem. In fact, Rome has been likened to the heavenly city, into which the relics of the martyrs have been gathered in this basilica. The detail above seems especially fitting, for just as the liturgical celebration of the First Martyrs of Rome follows on today (30 June) from the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, so the martyrs, holding their crowns of victory, are shown following the Princes of the Apostles (who are escorted by an angel) into the glory of heaven.

Also worth noting, on this day after which many Archbishops have received their pallia, is the pallium worn by the central figure among the group of saints on the right, and also the full ancient form of the chasuble in which he is dressed.

Below is a photo of two beautifully carved sarcophagi from the same period into which Pope Paschal I placed still more relics of martyrs who had been buried in the catacombs. The early Christian motifs of Christ the Good Shepherd, and Jonah have been carved onto the bottom one. Both are symbols of Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead.

Sarcophagi of Roman Martyrs

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