S. Prassede was built in the IXth century by Pope Paschal I; it replaced a nearby church by the same name. According to tradition Prassede and her sister Pudenziana were daughters of Pudente, a Roman senator converted by St. Paul; Prassede became a very popular saint for having gathered the blood of three thousand martyrs with a sponge and filled a (lost) well with it.
The new church was a large building with a spacious central nave and two minor ones separated by ancient columns (probably taken from the ruins of Terme di Traiano); the apse was decorated with mosaics and it was preceded by an arch which also was decorated with mosaics . Hidden behind a very plain exterior, the unassuming Basilica of Santa Prassede—or Church of Saint Praxed—hides some of the most beautiful Byzantine mosaics in the city. While not as brilliant or polished as those in the eight Ravenna churches and mausoleums that comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they are nonetheless breathtaking and priceless as well as superb examples of early Christian art and architecture. Other treasures in the Santa Prassede Church include a reputed piece of the column where Christ was scourged that was brought from Istanbul (then Constantinople) in 1223 during the Middle Ages, and relics from the catacombs in the crypt that had been abandoned as early as the ninth century. There is also one of the sculptor Bernini’s earliest works, a bust of Cardinal Santoni made when the artist was only seventeen years old—long before he created the masterpiece Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona. The Church of Saint Praxed contains the sarcophagi of St. Prassede and his sister St. Pudenziana, as well as three sarcophagi retrieved from the catacombs under the crypt. The interior is quite lovely, but everything is overpowered by the incredible mosaics shining in brilliant gold. All are original, dating to the original construction of the structure in the ninth century. As was the custom in early Christian Byzantine art, the mosaic tiles are of tesserae—fine glass tiles with gold leaf sandwiched between them. Mosaics cover the apse arches and the apse itself.
Saint Zenone (funeral shrine, 9th century)
The 8th century Saint Zenone Chapel in the Church of Santa Prassede was built by Pope Paschal I to serve as a funeral chapel for his mother Theodora. It is one of the masterpieces of byzantine art in Rome. The external portal is made up of reused classical elements and above is the mosaic with the Virgin and Saints and Christ and the Apostles. The splendid interior, on a gold background on the vaulted ceiling is a tondo with Christ Supported by Four Angels surrounded by other scenes including Christ in Limbo, the Gemmed Throne with Saints Peter and Paul, the Transfiguration, the Virgin, Santa Prassede, Santa Pudenziana and Teodora, the mother of Paschal I (with the square halo). The Pope employed talented artisans to bedazzle the chapel in gold and glass mosaics, which can still be appreciated in all their glory in an intimate space just off the church’s right aisle. It is the only chapel in Rome completely lined with mosaics.