The church of Santa Prisca on the Aventine Hill is the titular church of Aquila e Priscilla / Prisca is in the hands of the Augustinian Order since the XVI century and conserves a baptismal fons (a modified corinthian capital) in which the legend says, St. Peter had baptized Aquila, Priscilla and Prisca .
The same central apse is decorated with frescoes of Fontebuoni, a painter from the circle of the Zuccari, which tells the stories of Prisca’s baptism, martyrdom and the translation of her relics by Pope Eutychian. The altarpiece of the Pessignano instead describes the baptism of Priscilla done by Peter. Other curiosities of the church are the columns of the eighth century that were incorporated into pillars, when the church was almost completely rebuilt and restored in the twelfth century. A fire in ‘400 damaged irretrievably 3 bays, so that the church itself was shortened stepping back the facade. Only much later, due to the restoration of the sacristy which is located on the right side of the little square and of the façade, the remains of a fresco inside the arches in the sacristy, frescoes of the eighth century, because these arches represent the ancient division naves of the original church. Inside the church you can see the continuation of the wall of the sacristy with the arches of the nave right.
On the right there is a small altar of Santa Rita that comes from the church of Santa Rita, which was under the Aracoeli staircase. It was moved into here, after the dismantling of the church of Santa Rita with the Pick of the Duce. (Here a link with little information about the Church of S.Rita 🙂 )
One of the cardinal holders of Santa Prisca was Angelo Roncalli, for 5 years, before becoming Pope.
In 1934 the Augustinian fathers did start excavations under the present churche to find the Domus Ecclesiae of the Saints Aquila and Prisca. Remains were found instead of two domus of the I and II century, which over the decades have undergone many changes over the course of the third century and were turned into a mithraeum. These underground structures can be accessed from the garden of the church. The entrance leads to an apsidal, ancient nymphaeum which was transformed over the centuries into the mill, still containing majolicas inside the pools.
You walk through a short hallway passing huge columns drums (Ø 90cm) representing a retaining wall of the church in the surface. These columns probably come from the near and ancient Temple of Diana. After passing several doors you arrive at the crypt of the twelfth completely frescoed by Fontebuoni, whose altar contains the relics of the martyr Prisca and in which you can find the above mentioned the baptistery.
Behind the altar on the right, a staircase in a narrow corridor leads you to additional areas of the imperial domus and eventually to the vestibule of the mithraeum – this vestibule was obtain in 220 from the same mithraeum apparently an entrance area was necessary, before the temple itself, the sanctuary where the sacred banquet was held. It is assumed that a fenced area of the vestibule, which contains the remains of a statue depicting a giant anguipede perhaps, was used as trench of blood – for sacrifices of small animals, it is almost certain that no bull had ever been sacrified in this mithraum, due to the small size this vestibule.
The sanctuary, the holiest place of all environments within a mithraeum , is unique not only in Rome , but among all discovered mithraea: for both the frescoes and for the graffiti that are located inside. In this room the sacred banquet took place after the tauroctony (even if only symbolic sacrfices with smaller animals ). Only the initiates of the cult of Mithras had access to this room and only men , because women were not admitted to this cult . The inziates were semi- reclined on the podia , and were served water and bread by inziates of lower degrees of initiation . Above the podia you can find the frescoes that make this so special mithraeum : You can see the characters depicting the inziati of all levels and above all the character of the words that give its degree and the planet – protector divinity. Moreover you see a procession of initiates of Leones , the fourth degree of initiation that proceeds towards the banquet between Mithras and the Sun. At the entrance to the temple you pass two niches , one right and one left , which contained the two torch-bearers, inseparable companions in the Mithraic iconography . Quite well conversed is the torch-bearer Cautes – depiction of Lucifer, the morning star, announcement of the day.
The other unique in this mithraeum is the graffiti that allows us to give an exact date of when this temple existed. We are talking about the 20th novembre 202 e.v.: “Born first light, in the consulship of Severus and Antoninus (Septimius Severus and Caracalla) i.e. in 202 ev, the twelfth day of the Kalends of December, Saturday eighteenth after the new moon, id.e. the 20th of november “. There are two hypotheses: either the same mithraeum was consecrated on that date, or most likely, an initiate is reborn first ligh, i.e. he has become adept of the cult of Mithras, so to say he is reborn and he wrote it down.
The niche at the end of the podia normally depicts the focus moment of the worship, i.e. the tauroctony in this mithraeum indicates the moment before instead: God Mithras dragging the primordial bull in the cave, accompanied by his dog (animal symbol of the degree of the lion) in order to proceed with the sacrifice, the killing of the bull. The killing itself is perhaps shown in the cave under the arch, but is almost unreadable.
The other three environments in the mithraeum were taken from the portico of one of the domus, one is the hall of initiation, the hall of purification that retains an interesting niche (quite run down), but archaeologists state that this niche contained a decoration with seven concentric circles representing the planetary spheres, in the center the head of the sun god, with the twelve zodiac signs. The last room is the apparatorium, a room dedicated to clothes the liturgical furnishings.
During the fourth century and with the rise of Christianity, probably when the first church was built, the mithraeum was violently destroyed. Nevertheless, we are able to admire the wonderful tracks to reconstruct the footsteps of this mystery religion.