Near the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, concealed by its plain exterior, is the less well known Basilica of Saint Praxedes. It contains some of the most beautiful Byzantine mosaics in the city.
The first church on the site of Saint Praxedes is mentioned in an inscription dated 491. Restored by Pope Hadrian I (772-95) the church was entirely rebuilt by Pope Paschal I (817-24) in order to shelter the relics of Christian martyrs. The church is said to stand on the site of the house where St Praxedes sheltered early Christians, twenty-three of whom were discovered and executed in her presence.
The church contains a statue of St Praxedes clutching a sponge used to collect the blood of martyrs ( the sponge is said to be in a sarcophagus in the crypt) and behind the high altar hangs an oil painting of “St Praxedes Gathering the Blood of the Martyrs” painted in the early 18th century by Domenico Muratori.
Quintus Cornelius Pudens was a Roman senator and a Christian. Cornelius and his wife Priscilla were among the first to be converted by St Peter in Rome and they hosted the apostle at their house. Quintus was the grandfather of four saints: Novatus, Timotheus, Praxedes and Pudentiana. In 1894 and 1960 excavations uncovered the remains of a two-storied house dated to 129 AD by brick stamps found in its eastern wall. Two layers of mosaics paved a courtyard that may have been part of the house that belonged to the Pudens family.
After the death of her father and sister, Praxedes had a church built and it was here that many Christians were hidden from persecution. When Praxedes died in AD 165, she was buried in the cemetery of Priscilla where the remains of her sister and father lay. Six centuries later, Pope Paschal I moved the relics of Praxedes, of her sister, and of some say more than 3,000 other Christians to the newly renovated Basilica of Saint Praxedes.
The church is famous for its many mosaics dating from the 9th century. It houses a segment of the alleged pillar upon which Jesus was flogged and tortured before his crucifixion in Jerusalem. It was retrieved in the early 4th century by Saint Helena (mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine I) who at the age of eighty undertook a pilgrimage to Golgotha in the Holy Land to found churches for Christian worship and to collect relics. On a column in the nave is one of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s earliest works (photo right), a small bust of Bishop Santoni, who died in 1593.
“St Praxed’s ever was the church for peace,” wrote Robert Browning in a mostly forgotten poem called “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church”. It may be peaceful now, but the Basilica of Saint Praxedes had a bloody past.