Rome: San Saba

The San Saba.

It is easy to confuse the church of San Saba with the Santa Sabina. The names are almost identical, and both are located on the Aventine Hill, at a distance of some 800 metres of one another. I myself mixed up the two when I wrote about the Sienese cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II (1458-1464). He was cardinal priest of the Santa Sabina, but I wrote San Saba instead.[1] There are huge differences between the two churches, and also between the two saints they are dedicated to. While Saint Sabina is an obscure second century martyr whose existence is quite doubtful, Saint Sabbas (439-532) was a real living person, and an important one to boot. He played a pivotal role in eastern monasticism and was responsible for founding the lavra or monastery of Mar Saba, east of Bethlehem, in 483.

Early history

The church of San Saba is located on the Little Aventine (Piccolo Aventino), one of the hill’s two summits. It is just south of the Viale Aventino and not far from the offices of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a prime example of Fascist architecture in Rome (I wrote about it here). Monks from Mar Saba settled here in 645 and founded a church – usually called “an oratory” – and a monastery. These people spoke Greek and followed the Byzantine rite. So what drove these monks to Rome? Fear seems to be the most likely answer. One source claims they fled west when the armies of the Persian King Khosrow II conquered Jerusalem in 614 and captured the True Cross (the story is told in more detail here). The Persians were aided by Jewish allies, who were eager to avenge previous atrocities committed against their people by Christians. As a result, many Christians were massacred, although the numbers mentioned in Christian sources are no doubt inflated.

Madonna and Child and Saint Sabbas, fresco attributed to Jacopo Torriti.

Was this the reason the monks of Mar Saba fled to Rome? It is not impossible, but it should be noted that the Persians were driven out of the Holy Land again by the emperor Heraclius. To me it does not seem plausible to assume that the monks waited for thirty years before founding an oratory in Rome. There are other sources, which claim that it was the advancing armies of Islam that caused the monks to flee. In 637, the Rashidun Caliphate captured Jerusalem and the city was not retaken by Christians until the armies of the First Crusade took it in 1099. If the monks of Mar Saba – which, by the way, continued to function under Islamic occupation – fled their monastery in 637, this matches perfectly with a founding date of 645 for the complex of San Saba in Rome.

The monks did not construct an entirely new building. According to the church itself, there was already an apsed hall at this site (dating back to ca. 400) and this was converted into an oratory. Part of the hall survives in the fabric of the present church. A later tradition claims that this hall was actually a house that belonged to Saint Silvia (ca. 520-592), who was Pope Saint Gregory the Great’s mother. She was said to have converted it into a chapel herself, but there is no archaeological evidence to back this story up and it sounds like pious nonsense to me.

Later history

Church of San Saba, seen from behind.

The church and the adjacent monastery became very important in the seventh and eighth century, but declined in importance when relations between Rome and Constantinople turned sour after 751. This was a crucial year in history. The Lombards overran the Eastern Roman Exarchate of Ravenna, and the emperor in Constantinople was unable to send help, as he was himself embroiled in wars against the Arabs and Bulgars. Moreover, the emperor supported iconoclasm, which was deeply resented in Rome. Now that Rome itself was threatened by the Lombards, the Pope turned his eye towards the new power in the west: the mighty Franks. In 800, a new Roman Empire was forged in Europe: the Holy Roman Empire. Constantinople lost its grip on Rome for good. This had serious ramifications for the monks on the Little Aventine. Once a thriving monastic and diplomatic centre, San Saba now slowly but inevitably began to fade away.

In the tenth century, the church and monastery were granted to the Benedictines of Monte Cassino. They rebuilt the church, and it is this church, however modified in later centuries, that we can see today. Pope Lucius II (1144-1145) gave the complex to a different congregation of Benedictines, the so-called Cluniacs, a reform order. They drastically renovated it in 1205. Further renovations were carried out in 1463 (or 1464-1471, depending on the source), under the auspices of cardinal Francesco Piccolomini, who happened to be both Enea Silvio Piccolomini’s nephew and the future Pope Pius III.[2] The church was only made parochial in 1931, after a thorough restoration at the start of the twentieth century, and followed by another one in 1932-1933. San Saba, now administered by Jesuits, seems to be an active parish today, which organises many activities for citizens of this part of Rome. The church is nowadays in a quiet residential area, but for centuries this part of the city was mostly uninhabited.

Entrance from the Via di San Saba.

Exploring the San Saba – exterior

The church has an entrance in the Via di San Saba, but also one at the Piazza di Gian Lorenzo Bernini, which is behind the church. I entered the San Saba here on my visit in January 2017, since the front door was still closed. I advise walking around the church, so that you can get an idea of the proportions of the building (see the image above). If you enter from the Via di San Saba, you have to climb a flight of stairs and pass through a gateway (see the image on the left). You then arrive in a small courtyard.

The San Saba still has its original medieval facade, but you can hardly see it. The reason: the view is blocked by a portico which was erected during the fifteenth century restorations. The portico is topped by a loggia, which was also added in the fifteenth century. I must say the portico does not look very elegant and does not radiate any genuine beauty. The six rather ugly square brick pillars were added by Pope Pius VI (1775-1799), who – rather impiously – stole the original marble columns.[3]

Knight and falcon.

To compensate for its lack of beauty, the portico is a bit of a treasure trove. Many archaeological finds from the area are on display here. Some of the items are possibly from the San Saba complex when it was still administered by the Byzantine rite monks. Especially noteworthy is an eighth century relief of what is described as a “knight and falcon”. The style is clearly eastern.

Exploring the San Saba – interior

The church is unusual in that it has four naves. Basilical churches usually have either three naves – a central one and side aisles – or a single nave, but San Saba has four. An information panel outside the church calls the fourth nave “perhaps an early portico”. This portico may have linked the church to the previous monastery, which seems to have been on the left side of the church (the current monastery is on the right).

Interior of the church.

The fourth nave has the most interesting decorations to be found at San Saba. Three frescoes attributed to Jacopo Torriti and executed in 1296 have survived, although they are regretfully damaged. The one at the bottom of the nave shows the Madonna and Child with Saint Sabbas (see above), while the two on the side wall feature a pope – perhaps Gregorius the Great – and two saints on the left and Saint Nicholas on the right. The last fresco – see below – is intriguing, as it depicts the saint helping three young girls who are lying in bed naked. The story is that they were too poor to marry, and could not even afford clothes, forcing them to stay in bed. The fresco shows Saint Nicholas presenting them with a sack of gold. It looks like the old crook – who loved destroying pagan temples and hit Arius in the face at the Council of Nicea – did some good after all.

Saint Nicholas helps three young girls in bed, fresco attributed to Jacopo Torriti.

The walls of the central nave are not decorated, but the apse has a fresco by an unknown artist. It was executed for the Jubilee of 1575 and may have replaced an already crumbling mosaic. The fresco shows a blond Christ Triumphant with Saints Sabbas and Andrew. Below the conch are more frescoes, dating from the fourteenth century. Slightly more interesting is the fresco above the conch, just below the roof. It depicts the Annunciation and is the work of Antoniazzo Romano (1430-1508). The fresco was added during cardinal Piccolomini’s restorations in the 1460s.

The church has a nice Cosmatesque floor, perhaps made when the Cluniacs restored San Saba at the beginning of the thirteenth century. The throne in the apse has Cosmatesque decorations as well. Finally, in the right aisle, we find another Cosmatesque “thing”. In case you were wondering what it is: it is a piece of the former schola cantorum, the choir enclosure which used to be in the church.

Part of the schola cantorum by Vassalletto.

This schola apparently has a rather turbulent history. It was made (and signed) by one Magister Bassallectus, presumably the same Pietro Vassalletto who made a fine Paschal candlestick for the basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura. The schola piece is likely late twelfth or early thirteenth century. The choir enclosure was dismantled during the Baroque era, reassembled at the beginning of the twentieth century and then taken apart again because it took up too much space in this parish church (there was no more room for the parochians themselves it seems).

I quite enjoyed my visit to the San Saba. It is an interesting church at a nice location with a lot of history. The custodians even allow visitors to use the facilities!

Sources

  • Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 205;
  • San Saba on Churches of Rome Wiki.

Notes

[1] Which was not even a titular church at that time. It has only had a cardinal deacon, rather than a cardinal priest, since 1959!

[2] So a Piccolomini was active at this site, which might explain my mistake of mixing up the Santa Sabina and San Saba.

[3] This pope also demolished the Hungarian national church to make way for the new sacristy of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The story is told here.

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