I have chosen these two churches as my first “gems” to write about in Rome because they were the first places a friend took me to when I arrived in the city more than three years ago. While many visitors to Rome may head for Santa Maria Maggiore, the largest church in the capital dedicated to Mary, not everyone takes a detour to see inside these ancient and beautiful sites close by.
According to surviving accounts, Praxedis and Pudentiana were sisters who lived in the second century, during a period when Christians were persecuted in Rome. They were the daughters of St. Pudens, who has links to St. Peter. The sisters cared for the bodies of Christian martyrs and made sure they were buried, so they are often depicted looking after the dead or using a sponge to mop up blood. Some records say they also died as martyrs.
The present Basilica of St. Praxedis was built in the ninth century to house the sisters’ remains, on top of an original fifth century structure. It is not a very obvious church because its main entrance is hidden by other buildings and most people go in and out through a side door.
Inside, the first aspect to admire is the wonderful mosaics. In the apse, they depict St. Peter and St. Paul presenting the two sisters to Jesus. The little side-chapel of St. Zeno is also covered with these original Byzantine mosaics. It’s worth parting with one euro to light it up and admire it properly.
Near to this is “The Column of the Flagellation”, a relic that is claimed to be the pillar on which Jesus was flogged and beaten before he was crucified. The remains of Praxedis and Pudentiana can be found down a few steps in the crypt of the church.
It was built in the fourth century, at what is commonly considered the oldest site of Christian worship in Rome. The warden told me there are Roman houses underneath the church that may have belonged to the sisters’ father Pudens, a Senator who allegedly let St. Peter lodge here for a while. In the apse there is a beautiful mosaic which is among the oldest in Rome.
Overall, I think a visit to these two special places, perhaps combined with a tour of Santa Maria Maggiore, is a great way to spend a morning in Rome. I guess I particularly like this triangle because it has a strong feminine element to it. I hope you also enjoy your experience visiting these treasures.