A message from Father Nick 31

A tale of two sisters (II)

            A hundred yards or so from the great basilica of St Mary Major in Rome is a fifth century church which could easily be missed. Almost hidden by Rome’s modern shops and apartments, the basilica of St Pudenziana’s sister, Prassede (or Praxedes), has been described as “the most intact, the most virginal of all the early Christian and mediaeval churches of the eternal city”. It is also a clue to the appearance of the original St Peter’s.

Prassede and Pudenziana are both honoured as martyrs (which is possible) and as followers of the apostles Peter and Paul. A delightful mosaic from Prassede’s church shows Paul giving encouragement with a brotherly arm around her shoulder (no one here seems to have thought of Paul as a misogynist!). In fact, her church’s larger mosaic scheme is one of its most important features. Based on the Book of Revelation and the Letter to the Hebrews, it depicts a cosmology of salvation and hope.

But the basilica of Santa Prassede was reworked with particular care in the 9th century and it has other significances too.

It reflects a time of momentous change as Europe moved into the “Middle Ages”. By now all traces of the old Empire lay far away in Constantinople, where a culture of eastern Orthodoxy prevailed. Moreover, between West and East lay the formidable new barrier of Islam. In the West, fierce power struggles had seen the Franks emerge to prominence: a “fact on the ground” recognised by Pope Leo III when on Christmas Day 800 AD he crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne as western emperor. A new kind of Christian world order had begun, involving what has been called a Carolingian Renaissance. It was within this changed reality that Pope Paschal I (817-824) made a special project of the church of St Prassede. He planned its renewal carefully and among other things enhanced its scheme of mosaics.

Paschal was not bashful about including himself. He was aware of the collection of “P” names (Peter, Paul, Pudens, Prassede, Pudenziana) and added himself to the list: we see him in mosaic standing next to Prassede and Paul, holding a symbol of the church and wearing a square halo that looks a little like a spaceman’s helmet. (By convention, a square halo shows that the person represented is still alive.)

Even more interestingly, he also added another living person. The Zeno side chapel is famous for its mosaics. As well as the apostles, it shows a number of women (we believe they are the women who accompanied Jesus during his ministry – if so they are a welcome inclusion). But it gives pride of place to a distinguished row of four larger female figures. Three are to be expected: Our Lady with Prassede and Pudenziana. At the far left however is a woman who is wearing a square halo. Her name is kindly provided for us: she is THEODORA EPISCOPA – “Bishop Theodora” – the mother of Pope Paschal.

Much remains uncertain about this era when Episcopal honour might be conferred by association, but there are other examples of women being distinguished by such titles. There is even a tradition that St Prassede was made presbytera by Pius I, friend of the senatorial Pudens clan. Fascinating as it is, we cannot know for sure. All we can say is that the early Christian women of Rome, whatever their ecclesiastical status, are among a special group of witnesses whose influence on our own faith has been incalculable.

By Sixtus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0