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When Simon Peter first came to Rome around 42 AD to spread the gospel, his earliest converts in the capital of the empire included the Pudens family.  Quintus Cornelius Pudens was a Roman patrician and Senator.  His wife Priscilla was of the patrician family Glabrio.  They had two virgin daughters, Pudentiana and Praxedes.  Pudens was so close to Peter that he provided living quarters for him in his palatial villa on the slope of the Viminal Hill.  Pudens also allowed the use of his house as a Domus Ecclesiae (house church).  Being a Christian was a serious offense and meetings were held furtively in such house churches to avoid the notice of authorities.  Peter lived in the Villa Pudens most of the remainder of his life and performed Mass and the sacraments there until 66 AD when he was briefly imprisoned and then crucified in the Circus of Nero on the Vatican Hill.  The villa was probably the site at which Peter baptized his three immediate successors as Bishop of Rome:  Linus, Cletus, and Clement.

During the long dark years of the persecution, it fell to the Pudens daughters to perform the mission expected of their position and gender: recovering the remains of martyrs and depositing them in a consecrated location.  This gory duty sometimes required retrieving bodies, heads, or whatever pieces were left over by the lions and wild animals in the amphitheatre. It was even required that their blood be sponged up off the ground for interment with the other remains. It was customary to conceal the whereabouts of the remains of the martyrs.  Some were placed en masse in receptacle holes and some were removed to underground cemeteries called catacombs.  Priscilla, a wealthy landowner in her own right, donated an area on the Via Salaria which was tunneled under to make what is still today called the Catacombs of Priscilla. Eventually the entire Pudens family joined the ranks of the martyrs.  Pudens and Priscilla were buried in the catacombs.

Around 145 AD, Pope Pius I had a small oratory church built over the remains of the Pudens house.  Some walls of the house remain today. This qualifies Santa Pudenziana for the honor of being the oldest Christian church in Rome. It remained the residence of the Pope until 313 AD when the emperor Constantine offered the pope the Lateran Palace as a residence. In the 4th century AD, the small church was increased to a basilica.  The basilica was dedicated to the memory of Pudentiana.  Her sister Praxedes has another basilica dedicated to her memory up the hill near Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.

In medieval times, the Basilica of Santa Pudenziana was the magnet for Christian pilgrims visiting Rome, much the same way that the Basilica of St. Peter is today.  It was the number one destination of all pilgrims.  Itís known to so few people today that a visitor need not worry about being crowded.  In spite of its prominent appearance, it takes a bit of looking to find it.  The easiest way is to take a taxi to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and then follow a good detailed map on foot down the side of the Esquiline Hill and up the Viminal Hill.   

A small portion of the original Villa Pudens has been excavated beneath the basilica but is not normally open to the public.

 

 

 

 

When approaching the basilica on Via Urbana, one is struck by the fact that it seems to be sitting in a hole.  Actually the foundation rests at the normal level of this part of the city in the early 4th century AD.  The surrounding area was raised by fill to provide a more gentle slope up the Esquiline Hill when the larger Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore was built in the mid-5th century AD.  The grounds of the basilica are thus some 30 feet below today's street level.

 

 

 

 

To get from the street to the courtyard level of the basilica, these steps were added in the 19th century.  Everything in Rome is a work-in-progress.

 

 

 

The main entrance to the basilica with its tiled walkway.  The main doors are kept locked.  Access for visitors is through the small door on the left which is the custodian's office.

 

 

 

The present facade of the basilica probably dates to the 8th century AD.   Often the records of construction are no longer available or conflicting records are found.  Dating then falls to experts in the history of techniques.  The entire facade was restored in 1870 but the original style and decoration were kept.  The mural probably depicts Saints Pudentiana and Praxedes worshiping Christ.

 

 

The two windows in the front facade were part of the 1870 restoration.  Close-ups (below) show the busts in the tympanums of the windows to be of Saint Paul (l.) and St. Peter (r.)

 

 

 

 

The sculptured frieze above the doorway is dated back to between the 8th and 11th century AD, depending upon which expert you ask.  The lamb in the center circle obviously represents Jesus, the Lamb of God.  The circles on either side portray Saint Pudentiana (l.) and Saint Praxedes (r).  The image in the circle above the left column is that of the first presbyter of the basilica who was named Pastor.  Apparently that name caught on and is still with us.  The figure above the right column is Saint Pudens.  A slightly larger view of the frieze is below.  Each symbol has inscribed around its outer perimeter a prayer in Latin for the intercession of the saint.

 

Close-up of frieze

 

 

The Romanesque campanile was added around the 12th or 13th century AD.

 

 

The right hand corner of the courtyard.  The wall on the right was probably either of the original 1st century building or a 2d century replacement.  An area to the right of the doorway has some of the stucco finish removed to expose the original brick construction.  Theories abound regarding what part this wall played in the original house. 

 

 

As I said, getting a seat is not a problem.  Christa and I had our choice in the nave of Santa Pudenziana.

 

 

 

The main altar of the basilica.  The columns are ancient originals.  The apse has one of the finest examples of mosaic art in Rome.

 

 

A closer view of the mosaic shows the Byzantine influence.  Jesus is shown dressed in imperial clothing with the Apostles dressed as Roman senators.  Pudentiana and Praxedes are shown holding olive wreath crowns above Saints Peter and Paul.  The buildings above represent Jerusalem.  The hill behind Christ is Golgotha and is surmounted by a jeweled cross (partially hidden in shadows here).  Also obscured by the shadows above are the figures of an angel, a winged lion, a winged ox, and an eagle, the iconic symbols for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, respectively.  This standard in Christian art came from associating the four evangelists with the four winged creatures described in the Book of Ezekiel and again in the Book of Revelation.

 

 

The centerpiece painting above the main altar is The Glory of Pudentiana by Nocchi from 1803.  

 

 

A view from the altar back through the nave with the original ancient marble columns separating it from the left aisle.

 

 

Inside the elliptical dome is a painting called Angels and Saints before the Savior by Pomarancio from the 16th century.

 

 

The Peter Chapel is located to the left side of the apse.  The sculpture made by Giacomo della Porta in 1594 depicts Christ delivering the keys of Heaven to Saint Peter.  The altar in this chapel contains pieces of wood from the table Peter  used in preparing the Eucharist.  The remainder of the table is built into the altar of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran.

 

 

Off the left aisle is the Caetani Chapel.  This was the family of Pope Boniface VIII.  The relief above the altar portrays the Adoration of the Magi.  The floor mosaics are particularly notable.  At the point where I stood to make this picture, there is a small square porphyry slab in the floor which marks the the location of the well of the Pudens sisters.  Into this well were thrown the remains of over 3000 martyrs who accepted death rather than renounce the Christian faith.

 

 

Giovanni Rossetti painted this picture of Pudentiana and Praxedes collecting the Blood of the Martyrs in 1621.

 

 

The crest of the Caetani family on the vault ceiling of the nave.  The 16th century renovation was financed by that family and resulted in some unfortunate losses to original artwork and architecture.

 

 

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