In introducing reflections on the Lenten Season, I made reference to a splendid book by George Weigel, Roman Pilgrimage. In this fascinating work, the author presents insightful Lenten reflections tied to the traditional stational churches in the city of Rome that from ancient times have been associated with each day of the Lenten Season. In the early years of the faith, the Pope would journey each day to these venerable churches where he would celebrate the Eucharist. The tradition of visiting the statio of each Lenten day has been revived by the seminarians at the North American College and forms a central focus of the Lenten itinerary of conversion.
The Stational Church for the Monday of Holy Week is St. Praxedes, located near St. Mary Major, and is one of the jewels of the stational churches. Elizabeth Lev, the superb art historian who provided the historical and architectural narrative on the stational churches for Weigel’s book, explains the importance of St. Praxedes:
“Pope St. Paschal I (817–824), whose efforts to return beauty to the Eternal City led to the creation of many examples of luminous art in the “Dark Ages,” rebuilt this church near an earlier titulus (documented in 491) dedicated to St. Praxedes. Paschal’s entrance still exists in the portico facing Via San Martino ai Monti; remnants of the antique church remain in the sixteen granite columns lining the nave and in an architrave of carved Roman cornices. The powerfully articulated nave leads to a mosaic-encrusted triumphal arch, the gateway to the apse, altar, and crypt, into which Paschal transferred the remains of 2,300 martyrs from the suburban catacombs.”
St. Praxedes presents the pilgrim with some of the most splendid 9th century mosaic work in all of Rome. The chapel of St. Zeno is a resplendent example of this breathtaking artistry. Again, quoting Lev:
“Paschal I built the glorious St. Zeno Chapel in honor of his mother, Theodora. Its unique, wall-to-wall mosaics create a golden vision 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. The sarcophagus of the two sister-martyrs, under the altar, inspired a young Italian student, Giovanni Battista de Rossi, to begin exploring the catacombs; in 1864, de Rossi published the first scientific work of Christian archaeology.
Excerpt From: George Weigel, Elizabeth Lev & Stephen Weigel. “Roman Pilgrimage.” iBooks.