One of the many reasons to follow the Lenten station church pilgrimage through Rome is that, along that unique itinerary of sanctity, one discovers otherwise-hidden jewels of church architecture and design, created in honor of the early Roman martyrs. Perhaps the most stunning of these is St. Praxedes on the Esquiline Hill, hidden behind the vastness of St. Mary Major. As my co-author Elizabeth Lev puts it in Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches (Basic Books), “the little Basilica of St. Praxedes is a surprising treasure chest, its dingy portal opening into an interior of dazzling mosaics.”
That dingy portal is one reason why a lot of Roman visitors, including the most assiduous tourists, miss St. Praxedes, for its exterior suggests nothing of the marvels inside. Indeed, I expect I walked right past St. Praxedes numerous times before entering it for the first time on March 24, 1997, Monday of Holy Week that year and St. Praxedes’ annual turn in the station church rotation.
We owe this aesthetic marvel to the labors of Pope St. Paschal I, whose brief pontificate in the early ninth century added immensely to the beauty of Rome, during what history is pleased to dub the “Dark Ages.” After noting that Pope Paschal rebuilt this church near a late fifth-century church dedicated to St. Praxedes, Lix Lev explains the intention within the pope’s design:
“Paschal’s architectural aesthetic focused on light: thus the nave was lined with 24 clerestory windows through which the sun’s rays streamed before dancing off the small glass tiles of the ornamentation. The apse mosaic took its inspiration from the Basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian: against a mesmerizing blue sky, a golden-robed Christ floats under the hand of God. Peter and Paul flank him, wearing senatorial togas; Praxedes and her sister Pudenziana, holding their crowns of martyrdom, are embraced by the apostles and guided toward Christ….
“This celestial gathering is surmounted by apocalyptic imagery: the Lamb of God, flanked by seven candlesticks and the symbols of the four evangelists. Scores of white-robed figures offer their wreaths. Their procession concludes at the arch’s summit, where the apostles, Mary, and John the Baptist point toward Christ, flanked by angels. The entire work is an invitation to look through this world into the City of God.”
In itself, that would be enough. But that’s not all.
For Pope Paschal also built here a funerary chapel for his mother, Theodora, the Chapel of St. Zeno. And while the basilica’s apse mosaic and triumphal arch are as magnificent as Liz Lev describes them, it’s the St. Zeno Chapel that marks St. Praxedes as a Christian site not-to-be-missed.
I’ve been in many spectacularly beautiful rooms over the years: the Painted Hall of Wren’s Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich, England, the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, and the Sistine Chapel would obviously rank high on any such list. But I would happily enroll the tiny St. Zeno Chapel in St. Praxedes in any contest for Most Beautiful Room on Planet Earth. Replete with wall-to-wall golden mosaics, the chapel is intended, as Liz writes, to evoke the experience of heaven: “Precious columns line the four corners, capped with golden capitals from which angels seem to reach to the vault’s summit, where Christ Pantocrator looks serenely down.”
And yet amidst this stunning beauty is a reminder of how and why Jesus is Lord and King. For a small, glass-enclosed reliquary to the side of the chapel houses a fragment of a stone column, long venerated as the pillar of the scourging that preceded the crucifixion.
The glory of the Risen Lord, so magnificently displayed throughout the Basilica of St. Praxedes, is Easter glory. Easter glory is not without cost, for Easter glory follows the obedient suffering of the Son on Good Friday. There, on Calvary, the Son conforms himself to the will of the Father as he meets his messianic destiny on a cruciform throne.
Easter necessarily follows Good Friday. That lesson rings down the centuries, from Pope Paschal I to Pope Francis.