We often take our clients to see the fabulous mosaics (like this one) that adorn so many of the medieval churches in Rome. Not all of them were constructed at the same time, of course, but quite a few were built during the reign of one particular Pope: Paschal I, who reigned from 817 to 824. But have you ever even heard of him?
Pope Paschal I came from a wealthy Roman family, and lived at a time when the boundaries between the power of the Holy Roman Emperor, and that of the Pope, had not yet been clearly defined. For that reason, there were constant, and frequently violent, clashes between the Emperor and the Bishop of Rome, who struggled for generations to assert the authority of the papacy as the supreme leader of the Church. Families like Paschal’s took one side or the other, as the theological issues became blurred with power-politics.
When Paschal was elected Pope, he continued in his precedessors’ footsteps, and insisted that it was the Bishop of Rome–not the Emperor–who alone had the right to select diocesan bishops throughout the Christian world. Today this is taken for granted, as heads of state ordinarily make no claim to have this authority; but back in the 9th century, the rights of the Pope still weren’t so clear-cut.
As a part of his policy asserting the rights of the Bishop of Rome over the Universal Church, Paschal I set out to beautify Rome’s existing basilicas and to build grand new ones. One of his best known constructions is the basilica of Saint Cecilia, which houses the apse mosaic seen above. It was Paschal who brought Cecilia’s body from the catacombs along the Appian Way, where it had lain since her death in the 200’s, and interred her here together with her martyred husband and brother-in-law, Sts. Valerian and Tiburtius. All of them can be seen in the basilica’s mosaic–including Pope Paschal himself, who is seen holding the newly rebuilt basilica in his hands, offering it to Christ. The square halo indicates that he was still alive, and not a saint like the others, when the mosaic was constructed. (Did you know that?)
Meanwhile, across town near the Colosseum, Paschal renovated and greatly expanded the basilica of Santa Maria in Domnica, which had existed since the 400’s. The apse mosaic in this church likewise dates from his papacy, and Pope Paschal himself can once again be seen with a square halo, this time kneeling humbly at the feet of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
And while Paschal was arranging to have the bodies of Saint Cecilia and her family moved out of the catacombs to the basilica bearing her name, he was doing much the same on the other side of Rome with Saints Praxedes and Pudentiana. These two 2nd-century saints were biological sisters, and their remains were transferred to a new basilica built near the site of their family home–together with the bodies of 2,000 other early Christian martyrs, brought in horse-drawn wagons from the same catacombs. This inscription can still be found in the Basilica of St. Praxedes, attesting to this historical fact.
Paschal’s aim in all of this was to emphasize the grandeur of the Church which Christ founded, and the importance of the city of Rome as its earthly headquarters. Constructing tremendous new churches to house the bodies of great martyr-saints was one important aspect of that. Since it’s fairly clear that this Pope’s lofty goals were successful, it’s a shame that he is virtually unknown today! Thousands of pilgrims every year visit the churches which Paschal built, and venerate the remains of the great saints buried there … and yet oddly enough, they’ve never even heard his name.