Santa Prisca is a heavily remodelled early 12th century titular church on ancient foundations. Nowadays it is also the parish church of the Aventine, and can be found at Via di San Prisca 11. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication to the obscure St Prisca. Owing to confusion between her and St Priscilla, the church has also known been known as Santi Aquila e Prisca. This makes it easy to confuse with the church of Santi Aquila e Priscilla.
Prisca the saintEdit
The identity of St Prisca is very uncertain. One tradition claimed that she was identical with the 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.
The traditions concerning the relics have influenced the decoration of the church. The first is that the saint was originally buried in the catacombs of Priscilla on the Via Salaria, but Pope Eutychian (275-283) brought them here. The second is that Pope Leo IV (847-855) moved them briefly to Santi Quattro Coronati, but brought them back and enshrined them again. These traditions look as if the relics of more than one Prisca might have been involved.
Archaeological excavations under the church were began in 1934 by the Augustinian friars in charge, and continued in 1940 and 1958. 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. A 1st century edifice was found just north (left hand) of the church, and brick stamps were found which date this to AD 95 or just afterwards. The excavators considered this to have been part of a rather grand private house, which was extended about AD 110.
The extensions involved a quadriporticus (colonnaded courtyard) to the east of the church (beyond the end of the left hand aisle), which was converted into a residential annexe. An apsidal nymphaeum was added to the south, intruding on a neighbouring property, and this is now under the bottom right hand corner of the nave.
The excavators thought that this prestigious property was the documented Domus Privata Traiani, which was the house that Trajan lived in before he became emperor. An alternative identification is with the residence of Lucius Licinius Sura, who is known to have founded an important set of baths named after him and which were immediately north of this house.
At the end of the 2nd century, the annexe mentioned was converted into a Mithraeum for devotees of the Mithraic Mysteries. A surviving graffito is dated 202, which means that the cult centre must have been in existence by then.
A building with two aisles was added to the south of the house at the same period as the foundation of the Mithraeum, about the end of the 2nd century, and the present church is built over this (the nymphaeum made way for it). It has been claimed that this was the original palaeochristian titulus or early Christian place of worship on the site, in which case it would seem to be the oldest such edifice within the city walls. Ancient terracotta lamps with the chi-rho monogram were discovered here, but unfortunately no evidence of Christian activity was found incorporated into the fabric.
One scholarly opinion is that the edifice was at least converted into a church in the 3rd century, but conclusive archaeological evidence is lacking.
When the friars began excavations, they were emulating the Dominicans at San Clemente and, like them, hoped to unearth a Christian place of worship of the 2nd century or earlier. Like the Dominicans, what they found instead was a Mithraeum. In fact, the great hope in the late 19th century that archaeology would confirm the early legends concerning Christians at Rome proved, in the 20th, to be futile. While several Mithraea have been found in the city, no certain pre-4th century Christian place of worship has been uncovered within the ancient walls. This negative evidence is now considered significant. The early Roman Christians had a very low profile.
The commonly accepted date for the foundation of the church 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, after the government banned pagan cults in 395..
However, the first possible documentary evidence of the church is from 489, when it is mentioned in an epigraph. It is also definitely mentioned in the list from the Roman Synod of 499, where it is described as the titulus Aquilae et Priscae. It is clear that the original identity of the patron saint had been forgotten by then.
The church has been altered several times throughout the centuries, and the only clearly identifiable ancient remains are the aisle columns and the parts that are underground.
The first recorded restoration was by Pope Adrian I (772-95). At this period, the church was attached to a monastery of Byzantine-rite Greek monks, one of several in Rome (the nearby San Saba was another one).
The complex was damaged by the Normans under Robert Guiscard when they sacked Rome in 1084. The Greek monks had probably gone by then. Armellini, writing in 1891, gives the year 1062 for the arrival of Benedictine monks.
In 1094, Pope Urban II invited monks from Vendôme to establish a community here. This revitalization of the monastery was continued by Pope Paschal II (1099-1118), who had the church rebuilt. The oldest parts of the visible external fabric, including the apse, date from this project. The present crypt also dates from this time.
The Catalogue of Turin, c. 1320, mentioned that the church had black monks (monachos nigros), which must be a reference to the black-habited Benedictines. This was an unusually late date for any Benedictine monastery to survive within the city walls, because Benedictine monastic life in Rome in the 13th century had become disgracefully corrupt and most of their monasteries were suppressed as a result.
The monks finally abandoned the complex in 1414, after a fire. This 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 in 1445 by Pope Callixtus III.
17th century restorationEdit
The most comprehensive restoration took place in 1600 (the date 1660 given elsewhere online is incorrect), and was completed in 1611. The ruined first three bays were cleared away, except for the right hand aisle here which was converted into a sacristy. The work was paid for by Benedetto Cardinal Giustiniani, and the architect was Carlo Francesco Lambardi (not Carlo Lombardi).
A confessio was excavated as part of this restoration, giving access to the crypt from the sanctuary. The little convent was also rebuilt.
The stability of the old building caused concern in the 18th century. As a result, the ancient columns of the arcades were embedded in pilasters and the nave vault replaced with a wooden ceiling. The work was authorized by Pope Clement XII, and completed in 1728. The two side chapels at the ends of the aisles were also refitted.
In 1798, the occupying Napoleonic French army seriously damaged the church, and it was left derelict 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.
The Liber Pontificalis entry for Pope Leo III (796-816) mentions a monastery dedicated to St Donatus and located near Santa Prisca (in monasterio sancti Donati, quod ponitur iuxta titulum sanctae Priscae).
The ruins of this establishment seem to have been still extant in the 18th century, as in 1776 what was described as an ancient Roman house with a small Christian chapel were uncovered near the church. The discovery was not properly recorded, and the remains are now lost.
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 eventually made non-parochial in favour of Santa Prisca.
This has been a titular church since 1588. 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.
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.
Layout and fabricEdit
The plan is typically basilical, with a nave having side aisles and a semi-circular external apse. The nave and sanctuary are under the same pitched and tiled roof.
The entrance is approached via a little courtyard, to the right of which is the sacristy. The nave now has eight bays, but used to have twelve. You have to imagine the old church extending the full length of this sacristy when it was rebuilt in the 10th century.
There is no campanile, but instead a modern open-frame bellcote on the ridge of the convent roof. The convent has been very small since the 17th century, just the one rectangular building to the left of the church.
The late Mannerist façade is from the 1600 restoration, and is by Carlo Francesco Lambardi. 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 these.
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 granite (ancient spolia from a very high-status building) with their capitals decorated with swags and winged putto's heads. The lintel has a dedication inscription (S. Prisca), 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 leatherskin curlicues.
It is worth while going round the back of the church to see the 10th century fabric of the apse.
The curved wall has a noticeable batter (slope) which becomes vertical at the top where there is a cornice having stone modillions (little brackets). The lower third of the fabric is very rough, in large blocks of tufa interspersed with bricks and with a large brick patch on the left hand side. The higher fabric is more regular, in brick with two band-courses of tufa. Towards the top you can see three blocked round-headed windows.
The aisles are separated from the central nave by arcades. The arches spring from Doric imposts on square piers. Above the arcade on each side runs a floating string course, and above this the nave side wall has widely spaced windows.
The interior is mostly in white, but above the nave arches are unframed frescoes of angels and saints by the Florentine artist Anastasio Fontebuoni, dating from 1600. The angels hold the Instruments of the Passion.
The coffered wooden ceiling is unpainted, a reminder of the French despoilation, which let the rain in, destroying the ceiling's paintwork.
The side aisles have the unusual feature of four unequally spaced blocking walls, each containing a molded archway without imposts.
The fourteen original arcade columns are ancient, and are spolia. They are not a matching set. Very oddly, the 18th century restoration enclosed each of them in a box pier with the inner side open so as to display the column within. These piers support square Doric imposts, and below the fronts of these are pairs of little curlicues. The effect is either to charm or to enrage, depending on your architectural ideology.
The columns are: Six in grey granite from Mons Claudianus in the Eastern Desert of Egypt (also the source of the front door pair), one of red granite from Aswan in Egypt, one of cipollino marble from Euboea in Greece, three of bigio antico (grey marble) from Algeria, and three of marmor imezio which is white with dark grey flecks and comes from around the Sea of Marmara.
The sanctuary is the depth of two of the nave bays, and has an apse in which is the high altar. This has a pair of Corinthian columns supporting a triangular pediment. Unusually, the pink-and-red stones of the columns are different; one is portosanto marble, and the other an attractive and brightly coloured coralline breccia.
St Prisca was supposedly baptised by St Peter the Apostle, and this event is shown in the fine 17th century altarpiece by Domenico Cresti, nicknamed Il Passignano.
The curves of the apse flanking the altar have two tablets with epigraphs. The right hand one commemorates the restoration by Cardinal Giustiniani again, and the left hand one that by Pope Callixtus III. The (corrected) transcription given by Armellini of the latter is:
Prima ubi ab Evandro sacrata est Herculis ara, urbis Romanae prima superstitio, post ubi structa aedes, longe celebrata, Dianae, stuetque tot veterum templa pudenda Deum, Montis Aventini nunc facta est gloria major, Unius veri religione Dei. Praecipue ob Priscae, quod cernis, nobile templum, quod priscum merito per sibi nomen habet, nam Petrus id docuit populus dum saepe doceret, dum faceret Magno sacraque saepe Deo, dum quos faunorum fontis deceperat error, hic melius sacra purificaret aqua, quod demum nullis sese volventibus annis corruit, haud ulla subveniente manu. Summus et Antistes Calixtus tertius ipsum extulit omne eius, restituit decus, cui simul aeternae tribuit dona ampla salutis, ipsius ne qua parte careret ope.
The triumphal arch of the apse, the apse itself and the sanctuary side walls have frescoes by Fontebuoni. These are accomplished, and very much in the Mannerist style, but unfortunately are now a little faded. The martyrdom and burial of St Prisca, and the transfer of her relics by Pope Eutychian, are shown in the side wall panels. These are painted around a pair of oval windows with stained glass depicting symbols of martyrdom.
There is a chapel at the end of each side aisle, flanking the sanctuary. The matching aedicules of these have columns of Carrara marble (the ancient marmor Lunae), and oval altarpieces. The design of these chapels is by Giovanni Odazzi, 1728.
Also, each aisle has a side altar and the Ionic columns of these are in bigio antico. The artworks are anonymous 17th century, unless specified.
The altar in the right hand side aisle used to be dedicated to St John Gualbert, but now the altarpiece shows St Rita of Cascia receiving the stigma in her forehead. This work apparently came from the demolished church of Santa Rita di Cascia below the Aracoeli.
The right hand chapel is dedicated to Our Lady.
The altar in the left hand side aisle is dedicated to the Crucifix, which is a small wooden one on a painted landscape backdrop.
The left hand chapel used to be dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, but was re-fitted in the 20th century and is now dedicated to the Sacred Heart. A picture of the saint is elsewhere, but this is not the old altarpiece. The present altarpiece of the Sacred Heart and the side wall frescoes of Our Lady and St Joseph date from the re-fitting.
In the baptistry, first on the left, there is an ancient column 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 since an inscription, dated to that century, reads Baptismus Sancti Petri.
The capital is embellished Doric, not Corinthian, and has rosette and acanthus leaf decorations. The actual font basin is carved out of an impost which probably did not belong to the capital originally.
On the font cover is a small modern sculpture depicting the baptism of Christ by St John the Baptist.
This font used to be kept in the crypt, but was brought up for use when the church was made parochial in 1934.
The 17th century sacristy has its doorway to the right of the main entrance. It is not the usual Roman sacristy of the period, lush with decorative elements, but is a rather bare room with white walls and an open truss wooden roof. The altarpiece is a rather naïve fresco of Our Lady with putti, and a pair of putti occupy separate panels on either side.
The underground chambers are now accessed from an external staircase by the right hand aisle. This way passes by the excavated nymphaeum before reaching the actual crypt, which is below the far part of the central nave. On the way, you pass some enormous fluted column drums embedded in the right hand wall. These are 90 cm across, and must have come from a large building; the nearby Temple of Diana is usually mentioned as a candidate. They were buried here to support the right hand aisle wall, apparently.
The actual crypt is T-shaped, with a pair of wide passages off the end nearest the church entrance. The 17th century restoration provided a confessio in front of the sanctuary, that is, a pair of ceremonial staircases for pilgrims leading down into the crypt from either side of the sanctuary and joining these passages. However, these were closed and sealed off subsequently (20th century?), and so the crypt ceased to be a functioning part of the church.
From the crypt, you enter the Mithraeum via a doorway in the right hand wall and after passing through a little room and the original antechamber. The latter has side benches, which indicate that the original spelaeum or ritual cave (the main room) was proving too small when the Mithraeum was active, so the entrance doorway was enlarged to make the antechamber into an overflow annexe.
The spelaeum has two niches at the entrance, containing statues of Cautes and Cautopates (only the former is in situ). The original hall is 11.25 metres long and 4.2 metres wide, with a vaulted ceiling.
At the far end is an altar niche, displaying the restored Tauroctony or the depiction of Mithras killing a bull, which was the central icon in the Mithraic decorative scheme. The example here was in stucco, and was pieced together by the archaeologists from fragments scattered about where the Christian vandalizers of the Mithraeum had left them in the early 5th century. Pagan cults were banned in the year 395.
Below the depiction of the tauroctony in the niche is a representation of the god Saturn, lying down; the figure is made of amphorae (clay jars) covered with stucco. The graffito giving the date 202, mentioned already, is to the left in the niche.
This Mithraeum is famous for its cycle of frescoes. There are two, superimposed, and it is thought that the re-painting was done in the same restoration as altered the antechamber.
The right hand wall depicts the seven grades of initiation into the Mithraic mysteries which, in ascending order of importance, were Corax, Nymphus, Miles, Leo, Perses, Heliodromus and Pater. The human figures depicted are accompanied by inscriptions identifying them, as follows;
1. Nama patribus ab oriente ad occidentem, tutela Saturni (Pater).
2. Nama tutela Solis (Heliodromus).
3. Nama Persis, tutela Mercuris (Perses).
4. Nama leonibus, tutela Iovis (Leo).
5. Nama militibus, tutela Martis (Miles).
6. Nama nymphis, tutela Veneris (Nymphus).
7. Nama coracibus, tutela Lunae (Corax). (This part of the fresco is lost, the reading is conjectural.)
The word Nama is thought to have been derived from a Persian honorific. Note that the grades are identified with traditional Roman deities; this syncretism ensured that Mithraism was not persecuted in the way that Christianity was. Also, the deities mentioned relate to heavenly bodies.
Beyond these seven allegories of grades, six figures are shown bringing animals for sacrifice: a pig, bull, cock and ram as well as a cup of wine for a libation. These were real patrons, whose names are given and their grades: Leones.
The depiction of the Leones continues on the left hand wall. Also depicted is a cave containing four figures, identified as Mithras (left) and Helios (right) being served as if at a banquet. One of the two waiters has the head of a crow.
Beyond the spelaeum are three other rooms, thought to be ancillary (sacristies, to use the Christian term).
Moveable objects discovered by the archaeologists in the Mithraeum used to be displayed in a small museum in a room off the crypt, but have apparently been moved to the Museo Nazionale Romano in the Palazzo Massimo because the conditions here are inimical to conservation.
The most famous piece discovered is a portrait head of Helios, the sun-god, executed in opus sectile or intricately carved thin pieces of coloured marble. This is really spectacular. The mouth has been lost, and possibly the Christian vandalizers smashed it out.
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.
The parish office is advertised as being open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday 10:00 to 12:00, and on Wednesday from 16:00 to 18:00.
There was 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.
The underground areas are only open for guided tours, and for private visits by previously arranged appointment. Contact details for the latter are here. Note that the parish is not responsible for the arrangements.
For guided tours, do an online search for "mitreo" "santa prisca" "visite guidate" and take your pick. Beware, the cost may be high.
It may be convenient to visit the church just before or after Mass, but please don't walk around during the celebration. Mass times are as follows:
Every day at 8:00.
Weekdays: 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.
Sundays: 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.
- Parish website
- Roma SPQR web-page (click for gallery)
- Info.roma web-page
- "Romeartlover" web-page with 18th century engraving
- "Secretsofrome" blog with plan of church and underground
- "Romasotterranea" web-page
- Youtube slide-show with Vivaldi's "Salve Regina"