The Legacy of Romanitas as Seen in the Artistic and Architectural Legacy of Pope St. Paschal I (817-824)

If you were to ask the question, "which popes most impacted ecclesiastical Rome artistically?" one's mind naturally turns toward the baroque period with all the baroque facades found throughout the city, frequently bearing the name of baroque era pontiffs like Urban VIII. However, if one wishes to talk about the artistic legacy of popes in this regard, one of the first pontiffs that one should consider is Pope St. Paschal I whose papacy lasted from A.D. 817 to 824.  This ninth century pontiff left as much of a lasting legacy on Rome as did any later pontiff.

To begin with Paschal I was indeed a 'Roman' proper, having descended from one of the aristocratic Roman families. During his pontificate he had granted refuge to monastics of the Byzantine empire who were opposing the iconoclastic heresy raging at the time and he, himself, also actively spoke out about the matter. Perhaps fortuitously for this reason, he gave some of the mosaicists of the Byzantine world who were now in Rome proper roles in his ambitious programme of church re-building and redecoration in Rome. 

Pope Paschal undertook the rebuilding of the minor Roman basilicas of Santa Prassede, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere and Santa Maria in Domnica -- all of which still contain some of the mosaics commissioned by Paschal which were done a style considered to be of the "Roman school" -- a school which utilized rich colour and which were made exclusively of glass (and it is thought that at least some of the materials came from spoila taken from ancient monuments); here too we must also note the evident influence and proximity of Paschal's mosaics to that of the earlier, sixth century apsidal mosaic of Ss. Cosma e Damiano  Obviously as the centuries passed, while some of Paschal's artistic and architectural legacy remained, many others would be replaced or covered over by successive artistic and architectural interventions over the centuries, but we at very least have some of the most important mosaics coming down to our own time. Paschal himself had these churches and their mosaics designed in a manner that echoed back to classical models of the Constantinian era and earlier Roman Christianity -- and in that regard, it might be considered some of the earliest approaches to a purposeful attempt of seeking out "Romanitas" (which is to say a hearkening back to the glorious patrimony of Roman Christianity.  Most of these structures were intended to house the relics of the martyrs of the catacombs which were being brought into the safety of the city walls and into these churches -- including those of St. Cecilia which Paschal is credited as having discovered.

Let's take a look at some of what Paschal contribued to.

Santa Prassede:

While it is difficult to envision now, Santa Prassede was modelled after Old St. Peter's Basilica by Paschal, albeit it in a very simplified form of it. 

As far as Paschal's basilica is concerned, what we can mainly still find today of his own contributions are to be found within its extant mosaics -- which are considered to be some of the very best and most important examples of the Roman school.

S. Prassede. The mosaics are from the time of Paschal I who is depicted on the left side of the apsidal mosaic, robed in yellow and with a square halo -- denoting he was still living when the work was executed. 

Paschal I as seen in the apse of S. Prassede. The astute observer might also take note of his vestments, including the pontifical sandalia. 

Chapel of S. Zeno in the Basilica of S. Prassede. The chapel was a memorial to Paschal's own mother. At the time, such a separated chapel was novel.

If you closely on the triumphal and apsidal arch, one can still see Pope Paschal's monogram. (See below, including the detail in the upper right). The apsidal mosaic itself, with its rich blue background, depicts Christ in glory surrounded on either side by Ss. Peter and Paul and Ss. Prassede and Pudentiana, sisters, who are depicted in the attire of Byzantine princesses, right down to their red shoes. Two palm trees -- symbols of martyrdom and victory -- are also to be found, along with a phoenix -- a symbol of immortality and resurrection.  The blue band at the bottom of the mosaic is considered symbolic of the River Jordan (and thus a symbol of baptism). Below this are found twelve sheep (depicting the twelve apostles) emerging from the cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the symbol of the Lamb of God found in the midst of the twelve sheep standing on a green carpet which might symbolize Eden, with four rivers thought to possibly symbolize either the Four Gospels or possibly also the Four Rivers of Paradise mentioned in the Book of Genesis -- perhaps both.  The triumphal arch closest to the apse has a dominant theme of the Second Coming of Christ with symbolism from the Book of Revelation, while the outer triumphal arch closest to the nave takes up the theme of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The aspidal mosaic with an enlarged detail showing Paschal's monogram

Beneath all of this is a Latin text in gold and blue which reads:
The hall beams, decorated with various (precious) metals, in honour of the saintly Praxedes who has found pleasure with the Lord in heaven above, through the zeal of the Supreme Pontiff Paschal, raised to the Apostolic See, who collected the bodies of numerous saints and laid them beneath these walls, trusting that by doing this he merits to cross the threshold of Heavens
Pope Paschal also provided for a Byzantine rite monastery next to the basilica of S. Prassede which served as home for some of the Byzantine monks who sought refuge under Paschal during the iconoclastic controversy. 

Santa Cecilia in Trastevere:

One will note the strong similarities to be found between the apsidal mosaics of Santa Cecilia and Santa Prassede based as they are on an earlier Roman Christian template. Once again Paschal, the papal donor, is present, vested the same and on the left, holding the church building in acknowledgement of his architectural and artistic role and once again his monogram can be seen at the apex of the apsidal arch. 

The then newly found relics of St. Cecilia were translated from the Catacomb or Callixtus to this church. According to tradition, she was found well preserved and wrapped in a shroud that has been decorated with gold thread with blood stained cloths found rolled up at her feet. Paschal is said to have personally enshrined the relics in the new shrine church dedicated to St. Cecilia within a marble sarcophagus.

The mosaic scheme of Paschal originally extended onto the triumphal arch but regrettably were lost. The apse itself depicts Christ, robed as an Emperor, with Ss. Peter and Paul in senatorial togas to either side -- once again adding to the Roman symbolism. To either side of them are found St. Cecilia and -- another popular saint amongst the Romans -- St. Agatha; they are depicted in the dress of a Byzantine princesses once again. Finally we have Paschal himself on the leftmost edge, and St. Valerian beside St. Peter.  In many regards, this particular apsidal mosaic might well be considered one of the most Roman of any in its form, its content and it its piety. 

Here again we also find the palms and the phoenix, the Lamb of God and the twelve sheep representing the apostles. Beneath is another dedicatory inscription which translates: 
Built with diverse metals, this bounteous house shimmers with light. Though what once in an earlier age had fallen into rubble, Paschal, the open-handed prelate, built this, the Lord's hall, better than it had been before, forming it on illustrious foundation these golden mysteries of the temple resound with bejewelled walls. Exultant with God's love. joined together the holy bodies. Here, where Santa Cecilia and her companions are, youth shines with its fresh, ruddy flower, the blessed limbs which formerly slept in catacombs, [and] Rome bounds up, celebrating unceasingly, adorned until the end of time.
I would finally point once again to Paschal's monogram in blue and gold, found at the very top centre of the aspidal arch. 

I should mention as well that the now-ornamental vase found in the forecourt of the basilica was also put here by Pope Paschal. It comes from antiquity, but little more than that is known. 

Much of the rest of the present basilica's decoration date to later ages of course. 

Santa Maria in Domnica:

Having fallen into disrepair, Pope Paschal would undertake rebuilding work at Santa Maria in Domnica, once again adopting the model of the early Christian basilica.  However for our purposes, what are primarily of interest here in Paschal's regard are, yet again, the mosaics. 

This particular series is slightly different than the previous two, showing the Virgin enthroned with the Christ Child on her lap. It is considered one of the earliest extant representations where the Virgin is assigned so central a position in the composition -- and considered to show some Byzantine influences in this regard. Surrounding her are a host of angels while above, on the triumphal arch, are found Christ enthroned, surrounded by the twelve apostles. Beneath are seen two larger figures whose identity has been subject to some debate -- possibly St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. 

In the mosaic of Santa Maria in Domnica, Paschal can again be seen (as can his monogram), this time kneeling tie and touching the red shoe of the Virgin. 

The Latin inscription beneath reads as follows:
This house was once broken down in ruins, now it glistens for all time being decorated in various metals and behold God belongs to it. It shines like Phoebus in the world after the foul covering of horrible night flees. Virgin Mary, for you Paschal the trustworthy leader joyfully founds this house to remain for ever.

In addition to these three basilicas, Pope Paschal I was also credited with undertaking major renovations at Santa Maria Maggiore and the addition of two oratories in Old St. Peter's which were dedicated to Ss. Processus and Martinianus and Ss. Xistus and Fabianus -- regrettably now lost to history. 

While some attribute Paschal's contributions to ecclesiastical art as his means of securing and emphasizing papal power, this seems a rather jaded view. Whatever his motives (which were likely far more complicated and nuanced) what is clear is that he made a very important and lasting contribution to the face and identity of ecclesiastical Rome -- a contribution that, through all the layers of history that have been added as another 1200 years would pass, is still in evidence today. 

Pope Paschal I was canonized a saint in the sixteenth century and is buried in the basilica of S. Prassede.

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