A Message from Father Nick 30

A tale of two sisters (I)

We met St Pudenziana last week; or rather we glimpsed the church which is dedicated to her, with its famous dominating image of Christ. This is thought to be Christian Rome’s earliest extant monumental mosaic and has been dated to around 390 AD. It shows Jesus teaching his apostles against the background of Jerusalem while symbols of the four evangelists appear above them. There are also two female figures presenting crowns to Sts Peter and Paul.

Who might the two female figures be? Perhaps the clue is given by a similar pairing in the basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill. Dating from approximately the same era (late 4th – early 5th century) it shows two women, dressed as theological teachers, who were once part of a larger mosaic including Peter and Paul. These two female figures represent the “Church from the Circumcision” (i.e. the Jewish people; there was a strong Jewish element in early Roman Christianity) and the “Church from the Gentiles”: traditions associated respectively with the two “princes” of the apostles.

Some have suggested that the two women might be Pudenziana herself and her sister Praxedes (or Prassede). This is perhaps less likely because (as in the church of Santa Prassede, which we will see next week) honour would usually be shown as being conferred by the apostles rather than bestowed upon them. Nevertheless, the prominence of women in such early iconography is very telling. Their role in fostering and guiding the early Church is much more than a symbolic inclusion. It is central to our story.

And Pudenziana and Prassede have an interesting place in that story. By tradition they are the daughters of a Roman senator called Punicus Pudens, mentioned in St Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy. He is believed to have been a convert of St Peter and to have acted as Peter’s host during his stay in Rome (according to this tradition Peter carried on a twenty-five year ministry in the city. Paul would perhaps have arrived in 61 AD and lived for some time under house arrest).

The church of St Pudenziana is held by many to be the site of Pudens’ own house and the place where a Christian community continued to gather after Peter’s death. When Christianity was recognised in the 4th century, a church was built on the same site, incorporating part of the original house.

We have no early accounts of the sisters, but their names have been preserved, and they are remembered for providing a link with Peter and Paul. They even seem to have been leaders of a house church which carefully preserved the tradition of apostolic worship. We should honour them still today.