Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Roman Basilica of St Pudentiana

Before the feast of St Peter Celestine was added to the general calendar in the reign of Pope Clement IX (1667-69), May 19th was the feast of St Pudentiana, already attested on this date in the so-called Martyrology of St Jerome in the 5th century. Prior to Pope Clement VIII’s editorial revision of the Tridentine breviary, her name was usually given as “Potentiana”; her traditional legend is not considered historically reliable, and she was removed from the calendar altogether in the post-Conciliar reform. However, a church titled to her is one of the oldest in Rome, built at the end of the 4th century, and preserves one of the oldest Christian mosaics in the city.

Image from Wikimedia Commons by Welleschik, CC BY-SA 3.0
Unfortunately, the church has undergone a number of restorations, most notably, a radical transformation in the later 16th century, at a point when it was practically in ruins. This “restoration” clipped off much of the lower part of the mosaic, and a good portion of the sides as well; as a result, Christ now appears in the company of ten of the Apostles, rather than the customary twelve.

In the upper part are seen the four animals from the visions in the first chapter of Ezekiel and the fourth of the Apocalypse, which, according to a tradition that goes back to St Irenaeus at the end of the 2nd century, represent the four Evangelists. This is one of the oldest images of them; at the time it was made, this tradition was generally accepted, but had not yet been confirmed precisely as we now know it. Ss Jerome and Augustine, who were both alive when the church was built, give slightly different explanations of which animal represents which writer, and both differ from Irenaeus. Going from left to right, they appear in the order which Jerome gives (man – Matthew; lion – Mark; bull – Luke; eagle – John) in the prologue of his commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew. Since Jerome had lived in Rome, and been the secretary to Pope St Damasus I, who died in 384, it is quite possible that the artist or his patron took this arrangement directly from a personal conversation with the saint.

Other details are open to interpretation. The city behind Christ and the Apostles may be Jerusalem, in which case, the buildings may be the churches built there by Constantine in the early days of the peace of the Church. (All of these were destroyed by the Muslim Caliph at the beginning of the 11th century, and later rebuilt, so we cannot compare their appearance today with anything seen in the mosaic.) This is also suggested by the brightly jeweled Cross on the hill directly behind Christ, which may be intended to the remind the viewer of the famous apparition of the Cross on Mt Calvary, which took place roughly 40 years earlier.

The city may also be understood to be Rome, sanctified by the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul, who are here shown closest to Christ. About twenty years before this church was built, the prefect of Rome, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, an ardent defender of the traditional worship of the pagan gods, had restored a portico in the Roman Forum dedicated to the “Dii Consentes – the Harmonious Gods”, also known as the Twelve Olympians. This was the last time a structure with a pagan religious significance was restored as an official act in the city.

The portico of the Dii Consentes in the Roman Forum, very partially reconstructed out of fragments of the original found on the site, as part of a major excavation campaign in the 1930s. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Ursus; CC BY-SA 3.0).
The Dii Consentes were as a group the patrons of the Roman senatorial class, many of whom had residences on the Esquiline hill where the basilica of St Pudentiana is located. The majestic portrayal of Christ in gold and on an imperial throne may therefore be intended to mean that Rome is now a Christian city under the King of kings and Lord of lords. The portico which embraces the twelve Apostles would then displace that of the Dii Consentes, and show the senators that they are now under the protection, not of a group of fictitious and immoral characters, but that of Jesus’ close friends.

There is also some uncertainty concerning the two women who seem to be crowning Ss Peter and Paul. They are traditionally said to be St Pudentiana and her sister Praxedes, daughters of a senator named Pudens, who according to one of the more unlikely stories, was the host of St Peter when he first came to Rome. The feast of St Praxedes on July 21st is also very ancient, and a church dedicated to her, originally of the 5th century, but completely rebuilt in the early 9th, is only a quarter of a mile away.

A mosaic from the reign of Pope St Paschal I (817-24) in the chapel of St Zeno within the basilica of St Praxedes. The lower register depicts the Pope’s mother Theodora (with a square blue nimbus, indicating that she was alive at the time the image was made), and the sisters Praxedes and Pudentiana to either side of the Virgin Mary. In the upper part, the Lamb of God stands on a hill from which the four rivers of Paradise flow, with deer to either side as a reference to the words of the Psalm, “As the deer longeth for the streams of running water...”; to the right, a fragmentary Harrowing of Hell.
However, the legend that links them as sisters is decidedly much later than the building of either church, and not reliable as history; it is also very unlikely that a Roman senator would give one of his daughters a Latin name, and the other a Greek name like Praxedes. It seems more probable that the two figures represent the Church of the Synagogue, i.e., those who converted to Christianity from Judaism, and the Church of the Gentiles, those who converted from paganism. This is a common motif of early Christian art, as seen, for example, in the mosaic on the counter-façade of Santa Sabina about 50 years later. In this case, the women would perhaps not be crowning the Apostles, but offering them as tributes to Christ, indicated by the gestures made in His direction by Peter, “the Apostle of the circumcision”, and Paul, “the Apostle of the gentiles.” (Galatians 2, 8).

The dedicatory inscription on the counter-façade of Santa Sabina, the only part of the church’s original mosaic decoration which survives, ca. 425 A.D. The symbolic figure of “the church from the circumcision” is on the left, and that of “the church from the gentiles” on the right. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.
Finally, the inscription on the book in Christ’s hands, “Dominus conservator ecclesiae Pudentianae” may be read in two ways. “Pudentianae” may be taken as the genitive case of the woman’s name, in which case it would mean “the Lord is the preserver of the church of Pudentiana.” It may be also be taken as an adjective meaning “belonging to Pudens”, and modifying the word “ecclesiae”, and thus “the Lord is the preserver of the church of Pudens.” For this reason, some scholars believe that the association of the saint called Pudentiana with this church is purely accidental, deriving from a misunderstanding of the inscription.

An interesting piece of history connected to this church is that it was the first cardinalitial title of one Scipione Rebiba, which he received in 1556 from Pope Paul IV, whom he had previous served as the auxiliary bishop of Chieti. The vast majority of Latin Rite Catholic bishops (and therefore the priests ordained by them) today derive their Apostolic succession from Cardinal Rebiba through Pope Benedict XIII (1724-30), and the nearly 160 bishops consecrated by the latter. (Of these, by the way, only 18 were consecrated before Benedict’s election as Pope. His Holiness was evidently really fond of lengthy ceremonies; in the second month of his Papacy, July of 1724, at the age of 75, he performed episcopal consecrations on four Sundays in a row, and one on the last Wednesday of the month for good measure!)

Cardinal Scipione Rebiba (1504-77)

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