Thursday, December 07, 2006

Roma: 3

I know, I really am going on sixteen to the dozen with these ricordi of Rome. But I prom— uh, I plan to make this the last such posting.

Santa Prassede
Santa Prassede

Right around the corner from Santa Maria Maggiore, set back from a busy commercial street, is another of Rome's ancient churches, Santa Prassede (St. Praxedes). It was built in the ninth century, although much modified and restored since.

The apse mosaic is a fine example of Byzantine-influenced art, but the real jewel in this place is the tiny Chapel of San Zeno off the right aisle. All its walls and its ceiling are covered with ninth century mosaics, including one of Christ as the Lamb of God, an image I always find moving. As far as I know, nothing much has changed in this room since it was made so long ago; it offers not only esthetic, and perhaps spiritual rewards if you are so minded, but it's like a trip back into a world of the late Empire or early Middle Ages whose values were as different from those of today as can be imagined; the Romans of the classical period, skeptical, political, and engineering-minded, were much more like us than were the people who built Santa Prassede.

It was my third visit to the church — I would be happy to return any number of times — but this time I noticed something that had escaped me before. On a pier near the side entrance to the right of the altar is a stone tablet recording the 2,300 martyrs whose remains were ordered moved here from catacombs by Pope Paschal I (817–824).

Contrary to popular belief, during most of the first three centuries A.D., Christians were not persecuted in Rome (although they were probably considered crackpots). Few Romans, especially of the Senatorial class, were very religious and they were no more bothered about Christianity than about the followers of other exotic cults like those dedicated to Isis, Mithras, Cybele, etc. During the reigns of a few emporers, though, particularly Nero, Domitian, and Diocletian, the persecution (more for political than religious reasons) was savage.

I'm dubious about the value of martyrdom. God wants many difficult things from us, including improving our character, spiritual discipline, overcoming self-centeredness and learning to care for others; I'm not convinced being tortured and killed for proclaiming an unpopular faith is a ticket to Heaven. Still, you have to sympathize with the early Christian martyrs and respect those who chose their fate voluntarily.

Those whose relics were moved to Santa Prassede are listed on the tablet (a Renaissance restoration of one from Paschal I's time). I wrote down some of the names:

Marius. Felix. Melix. Diogenes (a Greek, presumably; there were many in ancient Rome). Faustus. Zoe. Juliana. "7 Germani (fratelli)" — seven German brothers. "Martyrs and Virgins" — Paulina. Marina. Daria.

Who were they? What were their lives like? We cannot say. Their names are all we have.

And then there are the others whose names are not even recorded, probably because the inscriptions in the catacombs identifying them, if any, had been effaced by the time their bones were transferred. "62 martyrs." "1124 martyrs."

I was reminded of the description on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: "Known but to God." In that one respect, at least, we are like the Christian martyrs of Santa Prassede. Only God truly knows who we are. We do not know ourselves.

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