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Santa Prisca

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Santa Prisca

Exterior of Santa Prisca

English name: St Prisca
Dedication: St Prisca
Denomination: Roman Catholic
Type: Titular church
Titular church Cardinal Rigali
Built: 5th cent.
Artists: Domenico Cresti
Contact data
Address: 11 Via di Santa Prisca
00153 Roma
Phone: (06) 57 43 798

Santa Prisca is an ancient parish and titular church dedicated to the obscure St Prisca. Due to confusion between her and St Priscilla, it has also known been known as Santi Aquila e Prisca. This makes it easy to confuse with the church of Santi Aquila e Priscilla.

Nowadays, it is the parish church of the Aventine, and can be found at Via di San Prisca 11. More pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons.[1]


Prisca the saintEdit

The identity of St Prisca is very uncertain. One tradition claimed that she was identical with Priscilla, who is mentioned in the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts XVIII, 1-4), it is written that St Paul stayed with Aquila and Priscilla, Jewish Christians exiled from Rome, when he was in Corinth and again in Ephesus after they had moved there. Later, they were apparently able to move back to Rome, as St Paul sends his greetings to them there (Romans 16, 3-5). The tradition then claims that this was Priscilla's house and that SS Peter and Paul both stayed there.

The alternative old tradition was that Prisca was a daughter of the couple, who was martyred as a virgin in the reign of the emperor Claudius in the 1st century. This would make her Rome's earliest martyr, earlier even than those called the Protomartyrs of Rome killed in a pogrom ordered by Nero. This story was accepted by the old Roman martyrology, compiled in the 17th century.

Both traditions have been successfully challenged by modern historians, and the revised Roman martyrology merely describes her as the patron saint of this church who lived before the year 499.

Early daysEdit

A Mithraeum (temple to Mithras) was found during excavations just north of the church in 1940 and 1958[1]. Brick stamps found in the latter campaign date it to about AD 95, and so the excavator considered it to have been part of a rather grand private house which was extended about AD 110. It has, however, been established that Christian worship was established here at an early time, as ancient terracotta lamps with the chi-rho monogram has been found. A building with two aisles was added to the south of the house at the end of the 2nd century, and it is possible that this was the palaeochristian titulus from which these lamps came. It lies under the present church, and was built at the same time when a room of the house was converted into the Mithraeum.

The commonly accepted date for the church building is the end of the 4th or the beginning of the 5th century. The Mithraeum was violently destroyed at the same time, presumably by Christians. However, the first possible documentary evidence of the church is from 489, when it is mentioned in an inscription. It is also definitely mentioned in the list from the Roman Synod of 499, where it is described as the titulus Aquila et Prisca. It is clear that the original identity of the patron saint had been forgotten by then.

Middle AgesEdit

The church has been altered several times throughout the centuries, and the only clearly identifiable ancient remains are the columns and the parts that are underground.

It was damaged by the Normans under Robert Guiscard in 1084.

In 1094, Pope Urban II invited monks from Vendôme to serve the church. The Catalogue of Turin, c. 1320, mentioned that the church had black monks ("monachos nigros"), which must be a reference to the black-clad Benedictines. That order left the church in 1414, and was replaced by Franciscan friars. Later in that century a fire destroyed the first three bays of the nave, which explains why the church entrance is away from the road. The damaged building was patched up and reduced in length.

Post-mediaeval and modernEdit

The most comprehensive restoration took place in 1600 (the date 1660 elsewhere on Wikipedia is incorrect). The ruined first three bays were cleared away, the ancient columns of the arcades were embedded in pilasters and a new façade was constructed. The work was paid for by Benedetto Cardinal Giustiniani.

In 1798, the attacking Napoleonic French army seriously damaged the church, and it was left in ruins for a few years. One result of this was that the pediment lost the coat-of-arms of Pope Clement VIII which it once displayed.

It has been a titular church since 1588. [2] The next to last titular of the church was H.E. Alfonso Cardinal López Trujillo, who was made Cardinal Bishop of Frascati in November 2001. The present titular is Justin Francis Cardinal Rigali, who was created cardinal on 21 October 2003.

The parish was only established in 1934. Oddly, before then there was no parish church on the Aventine because the only residents before the 19th century were the monastics in the monasteries and their farmworkers. When the hill became a rather select suburb in the late 19th century, the inconvenience to the inhabitants of going to the parish church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin meant that the latter church was made non-parochial in favour of Santa Prisca. The Augustinian friars had replaced the Franciscans meanwhile, and remain in charge.


The plan is typically basilical, with a nave having aisles and a small external apse. The nave and presbyterium are under the same pitched and tiled roof.

The late Mannerist façade is from the 1600 restoration, and is by Carlo Lombardi. A first glance may be misleading, since it looks as if it belongs to an unaisled church. However, the church is flanked by the Augustinian convent on the left and the separate sacristy building on the right, and the aisle ends hide behind them. The frontage is in brick, with white travertine architectural details. There are four brick pilasters with Ionic capitals flanking the entrance, standing on high stone plinths, and these support an entablature with a projecting cornice and an empty triangular pediment. The frieze bears an inscription recording the restoration by Cardinal Giustiniani and the date, 1600. The entrance is flanked by a pair of Ionic columns in grey marble with their capitals decorated with swags and winged putto's heads. The lintel has a dedication inscription, and bears a triangular pediment. Above the entrance is an oeil-de-boeuf (horizontally elliptical) window within a rectangular stone frame which is decorated with volutes.

There is no campanile, but instead a little two-bell bellcote on the convent roofline.


The interior is mostly in white. The coffered wooden ceiling is unpainted, a reminder of the French despoilation, which let the rain in, destroying the ceiling's paintwork.

The 14 internal marble arcade columns are ancient. Very oddly, the 1600 restoration enclosed each of them in a box pilaster with the inner side open so as to display the column within. These pilasters support square Doric capitals, and below the front of these are pairs of little double volutes. The effect is either to charm or to enrage, depending on your architectural ideology.

Above the nave arches are frescoes of apostles and saints by the Florentine artist Anastasio Fontebuoni, dating from 1600.

In the baptistery, there is an ancient Corinthian capital allegedly used by St Peter as a font.
NicolasinnAdded by Nicolasinn

In the baptistery, first on the left, there is an ancient Corinthian capital allegedly used by St Peter as a font. This tradition is unlikely, since Peter would almost certainly have practised baptism by immersion and the 'font' is much too shallow for that. It has, however, been used as a baptismal font since the 13th century. An inscription, dated to that century, reads Baptismus Sancti Petri. On the font cover is a small modern sculpture depicting the baptism of Christ by St John the Baptist.

Baptism is the subject of the painting on the high altar. Prisca was supposedly baptised by St Peter the Apostle, and this event is shown in a fine 17th century altarpiece by Domenico Cresti, nicknamed Il Passignano. Her martyrdom and burial, and the rescue of her relics, are shown in frescoes by Fontebuoni in the apse. These are accomplished, but unfortunately now a little faded.

St Prisca was traditionally buried on the Aventine, and probably moved to the Catacombs of Priscilla. Pope St Eutychian (275-283) moved the relics to this church. During the reign of Pope Leo IV (847-855) they were moved to Santi Quattro Coronati, but where soon after brought back. They are preserved in the 9th century crypt, which can be accessed from the yard (see below). The crypt is decorated with 9th or 10th century frescoes showing scenes from her life and from the life of St Peter the Apostle.


The church is in a quiet residential location, and is not much frequented by tourists and visitors. Perhaps as a result, it can be found closed at times away from the traditional Roman lunch break. Try just before or after Mass, but don't walk around during the celebration.

A door by the baptistery leads to a terrace overlooking a playground. You can enter the crypt and the excavations from this yard, but you need to get the sacristan to let you in. The Mithraeum has traces of 2nd or 3rd century wall paintings depicting the initiation into the Mithraic cult, and is occasionally open for guided tours.

There is a guide-book available for sale at the church, in English, Italian and French editions.

The 175 bus from Termini to Piramide via Piazza Venezia passes by the church.


Mass times are as follows:

Every day at 8:00.

On all weekdays from October to May 18:00, and 19:00 in June. From July to September, this 19:00 Mass is only on Saturday -the church is liable to be locked in the morning on other weekdays.

On Sunday, October to May 8:00, 10:30, 12:00, 18:00. June to September 8:00, 11:00, 19:00.

Santa Prisca is one of the station churches of Tuesday in the Holy Week.

The feast-day of St Prisca is on January 18th, and the church is now the only place allowed to celebrate her liturgically.

External linksEdit


  1. Some sources say that a private house was found in 1933, but this is not confirmed in archaeological reports. However, a house and what appears to have been an early Christian chapel were found quite close to the church during earlier excavations.
  2. The church is listed as a presbyterial title in the Catalogue of Turin, meaning that it was a titular church c. 1320. It seems that the title was vacant for a period before 1588, and then resurrected.
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