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.
History of Santa Sabina
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.
What to See at Santa Sabina
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.
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.
Quick Facts on Santa Sabina
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.884534° N, 12.479804° E|
|Address:||Piazza Pietro d'Iliria|
|Hours:||Daily 7:30-12:30 & 3:30-5:30pm|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Santa Sabina|
- Personal visit (April 17, 2008).
- Matilda Webb, The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide (Sussex Academic Press, 2001), 169-74.
- Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (Yale University Press, 1986), 171-74.
- Frommer's Rome, 17th ed.
Map of Santa Sabina, Rome
Below is a location map and aerial view of Santa Sabina. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.