Friday, June 9, 2023

THE OLDEST CHURCH IN ROME


- adapted from an article by Fr John Flader in the Catholic Leader 
(Brisbane, Australia) 9 June 2023


Surprising as it may sound, the oldest church in Rome is that of S. Pudentiana. Indeed, it has the rank of a Basilica. It was built in the second century and is dedicated to S. Pudentiana, a second-century virgin martyr, the sister of S. Praxedes and daughter of Pudens, who is mentioned by S. Paul in his second letter to Timothy. S. Paul wrote the letter shortly before his death in Rome, and at the end he passes on greetings from Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, Claudia and all the brethren (cf. 2 Tim 4:21).

The Basilica is recognised as the oldest place of Christian worship in Rome. It was built during the persecutions over a second-century house, probably during the pontificate of Pope Pius I, who was Pope between 140 and 155 AD.

The building was the residence of the Popes until, in 313, Emperor Constantine I offered the Lateran Palace in its stead. In the fourth century, during the pontificate of Pope Siricius, the building was made a Basilica. In the records of the Roman synod of 499 the building bore the title of Pudens (titulus Pudentis), indicating that Mass could be celebrated and the sacraments administered there.

As evidence of its age, the Basilica is situated below the level of the present-day street. Entrance is gained through wrought-iron gates and down steps added in the nineteenth century to a square courtyard in front of the Basilica. The architrave of the entrance hall of the fa├žade, added in 1870, has a marble frieze that used to belong to a portal of the eleventh century. The frieze depicts four people: a man by the name of Pastore, who was the first owner of the building, S. Pudentiana, her sister Praxedes, and their father Pudens. The columns in the nave were part of the original building.

The Romanesque bell tower was added in the early thirteenth century. Restorations done in 1388 by Francesco da Volterra transformed the original three naves into one and added a dome, which he designed. On the interior of the dome is a fresco by Pomarancio of angels and saints before the Saviour. The right wall of the Basilica was part of a Roman bath house, still visible, dating back to the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD).


A magnificent mosaic in the apse is dated to the end of the fourth century or beginning of the fifth. It is among the oldest Christian mosaics in Rome and one of the most striking in the world outside of Ravenna, the Italian city renowned for its mosaics. The nineteenth-century historian Ferdinand Gregorovius regards it as the most beautiful mosaic in Rome.

In the mosaic, Christ is represented as a human figure rather than as a symbol, such as a lamb or the good shepherd, as he was in very early Christian iconography. The regal nature of Christ prefigures the majestic bearing of Christ depicted in Byzantine mosaics. He sits on a jewel-encrusted throne, wearing a golden toga with purple trim, a sign of imperial authority and emphasising the authority of Christ and his Church. He poses as a classical Roman teacher with his right hand extended. He wears a halo and he holds in his left hand the text: “Dominus conservator ecclesiae Pudentianae” (The Lord, the preserver of the church of Pudentiana).

In the mosaic Christ sits among his apostles, who face the viewer and wear senatorial togas. Two female figures on either side, representing Saints Pudentiana and Praxedes or possibly the Church and the Synagogue, hold wreaths above the heads of Saints Peter and Paul. Above them are the roofs and domes of churches in the heavenly Jerusalem, or in another interpretation, of the churches built by the emperor Constantine in Jerusalem. Above Christ stands a large jewel-encrusted cross on a hill, symbolising the triumph of Christ on Calvary. On either side of the cross are the symbols of the four Evangelists – angel, lion, ox and eagle –, the oldest representations of the Evangelists in existence.

On the left side of the apse is a chapel dedicated to S. Peter with part of a table on which Peter celebrated the Eucharist in the house of Pudens. The rest of the table is embedded in the papal altar in the Basilica of S. John Lateran. The Basilica is a “must see” when in Rome.