When the rain eased off I ventured out a second time. Turning right from the front door of the hotel I came first to Santa Maria Maggiore. This is one of Rome's oldest churches but the original fifth century basilica is entirely hidden by later accretions and ornaments. The legend behind the founding of the church is altogether charming. On the night of August 5th 352 Pope Liberius had a dream in which the Virgin ordered him to build a church on the spot where an unseasonal snow fall would occur. The next morning,as by miracle,the Esquiline hill was blanketed in fine powdery snow that outlined the ground plan of the heavenly ordained church. Quite something for August!
Having seen Santa Maria's roof bosses with the first gold sent by King Philip from the Spanish mines in South America I followed Browning's steps and stopped off in an old favourite - San Prassede. We had last been there for an Easter service two years ago. It looked magical with the interior lit up by a host of small shaded candles delicately nursed by the congregation . For visitors, the jewel in the church is the chapel built around 800 by Pope Paschal for his mother, Theodora. She is seen in the mosaics that adorn the inside wearing a square rather than the more usual round nimbus - a sign that she had become a saint in her own lifetime. The most enthralling thing is that the mosaics in the chapel look as fresh and sparkling as if they had just been completed.
Across the road is a church I had never seen before - San Pudenzia. It is now well below street level that make it almost invisible and is approached down a steep flight of steps. From the outside it looks like the sort of catholic church you might find in a provincial English town - it is certainly far from impressive. Inside however, it is quite a different story. The church occupies the site of the house of Cornelius Pudens , a Roman Senator, and supposedly a friend of St.Paul. The apse contains the oldest christian era mosaic in Rome, dating back to c.390. More than sixteen centuries later it glows almost as freshly as the day it was commissioned. It shows Christ and his disciples wearing Roman togas and standing in front of a vibrant street scene from the Rome of the time. Above them stand a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle - the first representations of the four evangelists.On a wet morning in December I was the only person in the church and was able to take my time to read my guidebook without interruption -a rare luxury. I learnt that the church is also famous for having a table on which St.Peter had celebrated the Eucharist and for having a marble statue of the Laocoon embedded in its foundations. This statue was discovered in the sixteenth century but lies embedded and unexcavated in the foundations as the workmen at the time were afraid they would not get extra pay for excavating it. Good story.