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Dazzling mosaics in charming sister churches.
The narrow streets to the south of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore harbour two charming sister churches named after sister saints: Praxedes and Pudenziana. Both are closely tied to the grisly early history of Christianity: Santa Prassede, legend has it, stands on the spot (marked inside by a porphyry disc on the floor) where the saint mopped up the blood of 23 martyrs who went to join their maker before she did; while St Peter is said to have stayed in a house where the church of Santa Pudenziana (Via Urbana 160) now stands.
The churches contain some of Rome's most glorious mosaics.
Santa Prassede was built in the 9th century and is a (rather amature) scale copy of the original St Peter's Basilica. Pope Pascal I brought artisans from Byzantium to create the extraordinary chapel of St Zeno where a rather stern-looking Christ is hoist aloft by four angels with a selection of saints looking on below. The effect of the gold glass tesserae (mosaic pieces) is quite dazzling. The column in the chapel is believed to be the one Jesus was tied to to be scourged. There's another great work in the apse of the church, with Pascal, his mother St Theodora, the sister saints and Saints Peter and Paul beneath Christ riding on a cloud.
The apse mosaic in Santa Pudenziana is even older, dating from the 5th century and looking for all the world like an Ancient Roman work rather than a product of the Christian church... as sign of ancient continuity. Flanking Christ on his throne are characters who look just like a group of Roman senators strolling through the city.