The Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill is best admired from the Giardino degli Aranci (Orange Garden), a lovely park located just north of the church. The park has a terrace near the edge of the hill, which offers a panoramic view of the city, and especially of Trastevere on the other side of the Tiber. You can also clearly see the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the distance.
The Santa Sabina looks a lot like a gigantic ark, rising high above the walls of the park, seemingly ploughing its way across the Aventine. The church dates back to the fifth century and has kept its original structure, a classical basilica without a transept. It is dedicated to the second century martyr Saint Sabina, whose historicity is doubtful.
The epigraph pertaining to the founding of the church has survived, so we know that the basilica was built during the pontificate of Pope Celestinus I (422-432). Construction presumably began in 425 and was completed in 433, when the church was consecrated by Celestinus’ successor Pope Sixtus III (432-440). Neither Celestinus nor Sixtus had commissioned the church; tradition dictates that it was a priest named Peter of Illyria, mentioned in the epigraph, who had the large basilica erected. The Piazza Pietro d’Illiria next to the church is named after him, but apart from his name and rank (‘presbyter’ according to the epigraph) nothing is known about his life.
During much of the Middle Ages, Rome was a city plagued by violence. Several important families in Rome fought each other and terrorised the population. One of these families were the Savelli, who provided the Church with two popes, both named Honorius. Pope Honorius III (1216-1227) was born Cencio Savelli. One of his most important acts was approving the new Dominican Order in 1216. The Dominicans were first granted the church of San Sisto Vecchio (if you want to visit it, it has been closed for years because of restorations). Honorius then gave them the Santa Sabina in 1218, and the Dominicans are still here, although their headquarters in Rome has been the Santa Maria sopra Minerva since 1370.
Pope Honorius IV (1285-1287), born Giacomo Savelli, was responsible for the construction of a stronghold next to the Santa Sabina, known as the Rocca Savella. The building replaced a previous fortress, built by the equally notorious Crescenzi family. The Rocca stood at the site where we now find the Giardino degli Aranci mentioned above. It was demolished in the sixteenth century, but some of its walls are still standing and now surround the park. They are best viewed from the old Clivo di Rocca Savella, which is by far the nicest way to get up the Aventine. But be warned: it is a steep road.
In 1586, Pope Sixtus V (1586-1590), hired the architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) to give the church a thorough makeover. Fontana’s project involved removing the schola cantorum or choir enclosure which had been erected by Pope Eugenius II (824-827) in the ninth century. Some twenty years previously, the already crumbling apse mosaic had been replaced with a rather unimpressive fresco painted by Taddeo Zuccari (1529-1566). This Zuccari died while still quite young, and that may be the reason he is not as famous as his younger brother Federico Zuccari (ca. 1540-1609), who – together with Giorgio Vasari – frescoed the interior of the dome of the Duomo in Florence. Federico was also active in the Santa Sabina: he painted frescoes for the Chapel of Saint Hyacinth.
Two more radical reconstructions of the basilica took place in the first half of the twentieth century. The idea was to restore to the Santa Sabina its original early medieval look. The restorations of 1914-1919 were led by Antonio Muñoz (1884-1960), those of 1936-1938 by an obscure architect named P. Berthier. Nowadays, the Santa Sabina is known for its large windows in the apse and clerestory, which let in lots of daylight. Other churches in Rome tend to be much darker inside, but the Santa Sabina is an oasis of light. The original fifth century basilica already had these large windows, and they have been compared to those of churches in Ravenna, for instance the Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Fontana reduced them in size for reasons of stability and Muñoz must be complimented for reversing this silly intervention.
Exploring the Santa Sabina
As mentioned above, the Santa Sabina is a very large and very light church. The 24 columns in the nave, made of Proconnesian marble, are special. Columns in Roman churches are usually a mixed bag, but these are a single set, perhaps pilfered from the Temple of Juno which supposedly stood on the Aventine Hill in Antiquity. The schola cantorum, dismantled by Fontana, has been re-erected by Muñoz (or Berthier, I do not know). It is basically twentieth century, but elements of Pope Eugenius’ ninth century structure have been incorporated. Zuccari’s apse fresco was repainted in 1836 by the influential Neo-classicist painter Vincenzo Camuccini (1771-1844). The fresco of Christ in Glory was nondescript to start with, and Camuccini’s repainting has not improved it. The sepia tondi with the faces of saints on the triumphal arch are not much better. They were painted in 1920, replacing mosaic decorations lost long ago.
Imagine how beautiful the church interior must have been when all the mosaics were still in place! The apse and triumphal arch certainly had mosaic decorations, and perhaps the walls as well (the lone example of a church in Rome with the wall mosaics surviving being the Santa Maria Maggiore). The foundation epigraph was also made in mosaic and it is fortunately still there (see the image above). It can be found on the counter-facade and is actually quite large. I have to admit that, although it is mentioned in my travel guide, I completely missed it on ALL of my visits to the Santa Sabina. And I have visited this church a lot! It was only during my last trip to Rome in January 2017 that I finally followed one of the basic rules for visiting churches: once inside, never forget to look behind you.
The epigraph is very large, covering the entire width of the nave. The mosaic is mostly text, but the images of the two women on the left and right side are interesting. The one on the left is labelled ECLESIA EX CIRCVMCISIONE, the one on the right has the text ECLESIA EX GENTIBVS. The images most likely refer to the Jewish and non-Jewish elements of the young Christian Church. It seems fair to compare the women to those that can be found in the apse mosaic of the Santa Pudenziana, elsewhere in Rome and slightly older.
Tomb of Munio of Zamora
One of the most interesting decorations in the church is a tomb. It can be found in the floor, just in front of the choir enclosure. The Latin text on the tomb slab reads:
HIC JACET FRATER MUNIO ZAMORENSIS NATIONE HISPANUS QUONDAM ORDINIS FRATRUM PREDICATORUM MAGISTER SEPTIMUS QUI OBIIT SEPTIMA DIE MENSIS MARTII ANNO DOMINI MILLESIMO TRECENTESIMO PONTIFICATUS BONIFATII PP. VIII ANNO VI.
The deceased can be identified as friar Munio of Zamora (ca. 1237-1300) from Spain. He was the seventh Master of the Order of Preachers, i.e. the Dominican Order, and he died on the seventh day of March in the year 1300, the sixth year of Pope Bonifatius VIII’s pontificate (1294-1303). Munio had no academic qualifications, but he was a gifted administrator. He was elected Master of the Dominican Order in 1285 and seems to have performed well. However, things changed when one Girolamo Masci was elected Pope Nicholas IV in 1288. Nicholas was the first Franciscan pope in history, and the fact that Franciscans and Dominicans were traditional rivals may have strained their relationship from the start. Munio’s patron, King Sancho IV of Castile, was accused of having bought the leadership of the Dominicans for his client by paying generous sums to the electors. When Munio refused to resign, Nicholas ultimately issued a papal bull removing him from office.
After Nicholas’ death in 1292, Munio was quickly rehabilitated, but his position as Master of the Order of Preachers had already been taken by Stephen of Besançon. He was appointed Bishop of Palencia, but resigned just two years later and retired to the monastery at Santa Sabina. There he died in 1300. His tomb slab is magnificent, and very special too. This is in fact the only surviving tomb slab in Rome on which the deceased is depicted in mosaic. Traditionally the mosaic is attributed to Jacopo Torriti, but there is no real evidence supporting this attribution. It would be ironic if Torriti made the mosaic, because he was himself a Franciscan and also worked extensively for Pope Nicholas IV, making for him the beautiful apse mosaics in the San Giovanni in Laterano and Santa Maria Maggiore.
Fifth century door
The Santa Sabina is a remarkable basilica in that its facade is not visible from the street. View of it is blocked because the Dominican monastery next door was built directly against it. Visitors can enter through a side door, but the main entrance is in the narthex. There one can find another masterpiece, a fifth century wooden door. This is likely the original entrance door, and as a consequence it is as old as the basilica itself. There is room for 28 panels, 18 of which have survived. Those of the lower part of the door are now missing, but it is possible that the original arrangement of the panels was different. Old and New Testament scenes are placed side by side, and there does not appear to be a continuous story.
It is a good idea to turn on the lights in the narthex by inserting a coin in the machine. This makes it easier to appreciate all the details. Since the door is so special, I have included a full-screen picture of the entire top part above. I will now discuss some of the most interesting panels.
The top left panel depicts the Crucifixion and may be one of the earliest representations of Christ crucified between two criminals (see the image on the left). The large panel in the bottom right corner shows Elijah in his fiery chariot, with Elisha catching his cloak. This is a familiar scene. We have seen it before, in the Cappella di Sant’Aquilino in the San Lorenzo Maggiore in Milan.
The final panel I would like to discuss is based on the Book of Exodus. It has three separate but linked scenes. The first scene, at the top, shows the Israelites led by Moses leaving Egypt. The Hand of God can be seen in the sky on the right. Near the hand is a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:22), which suggests the Israelites are travelling by night. The middle scene shows the Pharaoh drowning in the Red Sea during the pursuit. His face was re-carved during a 1836 restoration, and was made to look like Napoleon Bonaparte! The last scene features Moses’ brother Aaron, with his staff changing into a snake.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 204;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 27;
- Santa Sabina on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 An alternative theory is that the scene in Milan represents Christ-Sun instead of Elijah. Whether this is plausible or not, the scene on the door of the Santa Sabina is clearly about Elijah.