Santa Sabina Church

Rome, Italy

The Basilica of Saint Sabina is a titular minor basilica and mother church of the Dominicans. Santa Sabina is the oldest extant Roman basilica in Rome that preserves its original colonnaded rectangular plan and architectural style. Its decorations have been restored to their original restrained design. Other basilicas, such as Santa Maria Maggiore, are often heavily and gaudily decorated. Because of its simplicity, the Santa Sabina represents the crossover from a roofed Roman forum to the churches of Christendom.

Santa Sabina was built by Peter of Illyria, a Dalmatian priest, between 422 and 432 near a temple of Juno on the Aventine Hill in Rome. The church was built on the site of early Imperial houses, one of which is said to be of Sabina, a Roman matron originally from Avezzano. Sabina was beheaded under the Emperor Vespasian, or perhaps Hadrian, because she had been converted to Christianity by her servant Seraphia, who was stoned to death. She was later declared a Christian Saint.

In the 9th century, it was enclosed in a fortification area. The interior was largely renovated by Domenico Fontana in 1587 and by Francesco Borromini in 1643. Italian architect and art historian Antonio Muñoz restored the original medieval appearance of the church (which had served as a lazaretto since 1870). The bell tower was built in the 10th century and remade in the Baroque period.

The church was the seat of a conclave in 1287, although the prelates left the church after a plague had killed six of them. They returned in the church only on 1288 February, electing Nicholas IV as pope.

Architecture

The exterior of the church, with its large windows made of selenite, not glass, looks much as it did when it was built in the 5th century.

The wooden door of the basilica is generally agreed to be the original door from 430–32, although it was apparently not constructed for this doorway. Eighteen of its wooden panels survive — all but one depicting scenes from the Bible. Most famous among these is one of the earliest certain depictions of Christ's crucifixion, although other panels have also been the subjects of extensive analysis because of their importance for the study of Christian iconography.

The campanile (bell tower) dates from the 10th century.

Interior

The original fifth-century apse mosaic was replaced in 1559 by a very similar fresco by Taddeo Zuccari. The composition probably remained unchanged: Christ is flanked by a good thief and a bad thief, seated on a hill while lambs drink from a stream at its base. The iconography of the mosaic was very similar to another 5th-century mosaic, destroyed in the 17th century, in Sant'Andrea in Catabarbara. An interesting feature of the interior is a framed hole in the floor, exposing a Roman era temple column that pre-dates Santa Sabina. This appears to be the remnant of the Temple of Juno erected on the hilltop site during Roman times, which was likely razed to allow construction of the basilica. The tall, spacious nave has twenty four columns of Proconnesian marble with perfectly matched Corinthian capitals and bases, which were reused from the Temple of Juno.

The interior cells of the Dominican convent are little changed since the earliest days of the Order of Preachers. The cell of St. Dominic is still identified, though it has since been enlarged and converted to a chapel. Also, the original dining room still remains, in which St. Thomas Aquinas would dine when he lived in Rome.

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Founded: 422-432
Category: Religious sites in Italy

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