Today the Christian world enters the penitential season of Lent. Here in Rome, of course, the Pope himself said the Mass of Ash Wednesday and distributed ashes … but not at St. Peter’s. Instead, he bowed to an old Roman tradition, which for time immemorial has mandated that the Pope celebrate this liturgy at the ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina, on the Aventine Hill.
Sabina was an upper-class Roman matron, converted to Christianity by her servant in the early 100’s A.D. About 300 years later, Pope Celestine I had this church constructed on the site of her home, which suggests that either Sabina herself or a family member gave the property to the Church.
While there was some restoration work done in the 9th century, the building itself is original. You can see that the beautiful Corinthian columns are a matching set; it is presumed that they were brought here from a temple to the goddess Diana which stood not far away. Recycling at its finest! And there used to be a lovely mosaic in the curved apse, over the main altar–but it was damaged by leaking water, causing the tiles to fall. In 1560 a fresco replaced it, and it’s said to reproduce the basic theme of the mosaic: Christ teaching His apostles and disciples, who stand around Him.
One of the most intriguing architectural elements of Santa Sabina’s is its windows. Back in the 400’s, when this lovely basilica was built, windows weren’t made of glass; instead, thin slices of translucent alabaster were cut and inserted into window-frames, often forming patterns like you can see here. Most early Christian churches which are still standing today no longer have their alabaster windows, but Santa Sabina’s is an exception. On a sunny day, therefore, visitors are able to get a good sense of the basilica’s original ambience. Very little has changed!
We frequently take clients to the fabulous churches on the Aventine Hill, and of course Santa Sabina’s is a key stop along the way. Tour Rome with us, and we’ll be happy to take you back in time to this early Christian basilica–although the odds are high that the Pope won’t happen to be there that day…