Skip to comments.Lenten Station Churches of Rome - Ash Wednesday - St. Sabina
Posted on 02/22/2012 2:23:08 PM PST by NYer
Ascending the Aventine Hill, we leave the noise of the Lungotevere behind us and continue up the small road that leads past stuccoed walls and grassy parks . The Basilica of St. Sabina is soon seen on the right among the pine trees which surround it. This church provides an appropriate place to transition into Lent for it itself is a witness to the time of transition in which it was built, during the last days of the Western Roman Empire. This location is traditionally believed to be near the house of the Roman matron St. Sabina, a widow who was converted to the faith by her slave, Seraphia. Around the year 126, both Seraphia and Sabina were condemned for being Christians and put to death. Some remains of earlier buildings have been found next to the church which would be of the correct age to have been either the house of St. Sabina, which some traditions place on this site, or the meeting place of an early Christian community.
The current church was built by the priest Peter the Illyrian during the pontificate of Celestine I (422-432). It has for the most part conserved its original structure, with the main changes being cosmetic ones to the interior. The current interior of the basilica is largely a modern reconstruction which gives the church roughly the appearance it would have had after a renovation by Eugene II, who reigned between 824 and 827. His notable contributions to the church were its chancel screen and schola cantorum. A few centuries later, a significant event occurred as this basilica was entrusted to the Dominicans by Honorius III. Since then, Saints Dominic, Thomas Aquinas, Michele Ghislieri (later Pius V), as well as countless other friars, have passed through this sacred space.
Renovations carried out in 1559-60 replaced the original mosaic in the apse, which was heavily damaged, with the current fresco, thought to reproduce the image that had previously been there. A few decades later, in 1586-87, the sanctuary was renovated, with the chancel screen and schola being removed so as to give the church a more modern arrangement, with a new altar placed further forward in an enlarged sanctuary. Many of the windows were bricked in, making the church considerably darker than it had previously been. Although this was a common practice during this period, since the thought of the day was that darker spaces were more conducive to prayer, it took away much of the original character of the church. Thankfully, nearly all of these changes were reversed during a large restoration between 1914 and 1919. The ninth century screen and schola were reconstructed from surviving fragments. Some sections could not be found, which explains the blank or etched panels in the screen. All of the original windows were reopened and restored to their original appearance as well.
Built in 422 AD, Santa Sabina is widely considered the best example of an early Christian church in Rome. It has a similar design to the great basilica of Sant'Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, which was built later. Although few of its mosaics survive, Santa Sabina is famed for its 5th-century wooden doors carved with biblical scenes. The church stands atop the Aventine Hill, providing fine views of Rome from an adjacent orange grove.
Santa Sabina was built at the top of the Aventine Hill on the site of the Temple of Juno Regina, using many of its materials. The church was an expansion of a Roman house-church (titulus) owned by a woman named Sabina. As was common in ancient Rome, the church preserved the name of the title holder by simply adding "Saint" onto her name.
The Church of Santa Sabina was founded around 425 AD by the presbyter Peter of Illyria, who recorded his name and good works in a mosaic inscription (which can still be seen). It was completed by about 432.
Marking a development from the earlier basilica style seen at San Clemente, Santa Sabina "typifies in plan and proportion the new Roman standard basilica of the fifth century," representing "a high point of Roman church building" (Krautheimer).
A number of changes were made to the church over the years, including a restoration under Pope Leo III (795-816) and a redecoration under the archpresbyter Eugenius II in 824-27. Eugenius added the marble furniture of the chancel (which survives) and enshrined the relics of three saints in the high altar: Alexander, Theodolus and Eventius.
In 1222, Santa Sabina was given to the newly-created Dominican Order, in whose care it remains today.
A major remodeling of the interior in the Renaissance style took place under Pope Sixtus V (1585-90), which was reversed in a restoration of 1914-19. The work included reconstructing all the original windows and piecing together the marble chancel furniture from fragments found in the pavement.
The tall, spacious nave has 24 columns of Proconnesian marble with perfectly matched Corinthian columns and bases, which were reused from the Temple of Juno. The spandrels of the closely-spaced arches have inlaid marble designs in green and purple, depicting chalices and patens to represent the Eucharist.
The interior is very bright, thanks to the row of large windows in the clerestory plus three in the apse and five in the facade. The beautiful windows and marble chancel furniture (schola cantorum, ambo and cathedra) date from the 9th century and were painstakingly reconstructed from fragments in the early 20th century.
The 16th-century fresco in the apse is one of the few later decorations allowed to stay after the restoration, since it reflects the spirit of the original apse mosaic. There are a few traces of 5th-century fresco to be found in the church, at the east end of the left aisle. The floor of the nave contains Rome's only surviving mosaic tomb, dating from around 1300.
Sadly nearly all of the original mosaic decoration, which would have been as sumptuous as that of Ravenna's basilicas, has disappeared. The sole survivor is an important one, however: the 5th-century dedicatory inscription. The lengthy Latin text, written in gold on a blue background, is flanked by two female figures who personify the Church of the Jews and the Church of the Gentiles.
CVLMEN APOSTOLICVM CVM CAELISTINUS HABERET
PRIMUS ET IN TOTO FVLGERET EPISCOPVS ORBE
HAEC QVAE MIRARIS FVNDAVIT PRESBYTER VRBIS
ILLRYICA DE GENTE PETRVS VIR NOMINE TANTO
DIGNVS AB EXORTV CHRISTI NVTRITVS IN AVLA
PAVPERIBVS LOCVPLES SIBI PAVPER QVI BONA VITAE
PRAESENTIS FVGIENS MERVIT SPERARE FVTVRVM
When Celestinus held the highest apostolic throne and shone forth gloriously as the foremost bishop of the whole world, a presbyter of the city, Illyrian by brith, named Peter and worthy of that great name, established this building at which you look in wonder. From his earliest years he was brought up in the hall of Christ - rich to the poor, poor to himself, one who shunned the good things of life on earth and deserved to hope for the life to come.
This inscription is important not only because it gives the founder's name and date of the church, but also because it expresses the doctrine of papal supremacy, which was still developing at that time.
The 5th-century door of Santa Sabina is easy to overlook, but it would be a great shame to miss it. It is at the end of the narthex beyond the entrance door to the church. Beautifully carved from dark cypress wood, the ancient door contains 18 panels of narrative carvings, most depicting biblical scenes. Its frame is made of 3rd-century marble spoils.
The panels are not in their original order (it was restored in 1836) and 10 others have been lost, but the door remains a remarkable and precious survival. In particular, the Crucifixion scene is the earliest known depiction of that subject in the world.
Other subjects include Moses and the Burning Bush, the Exodus, the Ascension of Elijah, the Ascension of Christ, Christ's Post-Resurrection Appearances, and Three Miracles of Christ. There are also two intriguing panels whose subjects are not biblical and are difficult to interpret.
For a complete illustrated guide to this remarkable work of art, please see our separate page on the Ancient Door of Santa Sabina.
|Location:||Rome, Lazio, Italy|
|Photo gallery:||Santa Sabina Photo Gallery|
Pope Benedict XVI (L) receives ashes during the mass for Ash Wednesday in Rome's Santa Sabina Church February 22, 2012.
EWTN will rebroadcast this morning's liturgy from St. Sabina's at 8 pm EST.
Thank you for this online tour of a most beautiful historical church. Wishing everyone a blessed Lenten season and kudos to the church workers involved in the Lenten dinners in our local churches.