Monday, March 29, 2021

The Mosaics of the Basilica of St Praxedes

This past February 11th, on the feast of Pope St Paschal I (817-22), I did a post about the mosaics which he had installed in three basilicas in Rome, Santa Maria in Domnica, St Cecilia, and St Praxedes. At the first two, the only part of this work that survives is in the apses, but at the latter there is a great deal more. Since it was too much to cover all three churches in a single post, I waited until today to do St Praxedes, since the Lenten station is traditionally held there on Holy Monday. Most of these photos are by Nicola de’ Grandi; a few are from Fr Lew, and are noted as such. The post linked above explains the historical and cultural background which determines a good deal of the content and style of these works.
The apse and high altar seen from the nave; the 13th-century cosmatesque pavement of the basilica is also very well preserved.

On the external arch is depicted the golden city seen by St John in Apocalypse 22, with Christ, the Virgin Mary, St John the Baptist, the Apostles, St Praxedes, and four Angels inside. To either side, Angels lead crowds of Saints into the city. At the lower part on either side is seen a crowd of martyrs with their palm branches; these are partially destroyed by tabernacles which were inserted into the arch in the 16th century to house relics, which could be displayed and used to bless the people from the small balconies below them. (Photo by Fr Lew)
Detail of the center by Fr Lew
The mosaic in the apse itself borrows its motif from the basilica of Ss Cosmas and Damian, which was made about 300 years earlier. Christ is in the middle, larger than the other figures, descending from heaven on a series of colored clouds arranged like a staircase. He is wearing a golden robe like that of the Roman Emperor, and has a scroll in his hand, a symbol of His role as a teacher (John 13, 13). At St Praxedes, the hand of God the Father comes from above to crown him; at Cosmas and Damian, this was certainly originally present, although it has long since fallen out. To either side of Him are seen the patron Saints of Rome, the Apostles Peter and Paul, dressed in the toga and sandals of Roman senators. Next to them stand the patron Saints of the Church, Cosmas and Damian in the older mosaic, Praxedes and her sister Pudentiana in the newer one. On the left, we see in each case the Pope who commissioned it, and on the right, another Saint to balance the composition. (At Cosmas and Damian, this is St Theodore, an easterner like them who has a small church very close to theirs; at St Cecilia, their brother St Timothy. (Photo by Fr Lew)
Photo by Fr Lew: St Praxedes and St Paul, with Pope St Paschal I at the left.
Pope Paschal also constructed on the right side of the church a small mausoleum for the burial of his mother Theodora, who was, however, still alive at the time it was first made. This richly decorated space, which is still mostly covered with the original mosaic work to this day, came to be called “The Garden of Paradise” in the later Middle Ages. The door (like several other parts of the church) is made of material despoiled from ancient Roman buildings, including an elaborately carved architrave of the 2nd century.

The mosaic above it shows two prophets at the upper corners, probably Isaiah and Jeremiah; Christ with the twelve Apostles in the outer band; the Virgin Mary, Ss Timothy and Pudens (the father and brother of the sisters Praxedes and Pudentiana) and then eight virgin Martyrs, not labelled, but presumably including the titular Saint of the church herself. The figures of the two Popes at the bottom are very recent restorations, clearly quite different in style.

To either side of the chapel’s external window are the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist.
To the right, Ss John, Andrew and James.
Over the door, Ss Peter and Paul to either side of the divine throne.
On the left wall, Ss Praxedes, Pudentiana and Agnes.
On the ceiling, Christ the Pantocrator surrounded by angels.
The door on the left wall, which leads into another chapel, with a mosaic of the Lamb of God, standing on the hill from which flow the rivers of Paradise, and below it (from left to right), Pope Paschal’s mother Theodora (with a square blue halo, indicating that she was still alive at the time the mosaic was made), then the Virgin Mary once again, with Ss Praxedes and Pudentiana to either side of her.
A view from near the back of the church, by Fr Lew. According to the traditional legend of her life, St Praxedes would collect the blood of Christian martyrs with a sponge, then squeeze it out into a vessel, which she would bring home and pour into a well. The section of pavement seen here with the inscription around it is said to be the place within the building that was once her house where the well was.

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