Friday, December 1, 2017

Santa Sabina

Santa Sabina all'Aventino was built on the site of the one of the private residences in which Christian congregations met in the second century.   It was the home of Saint Sabina, a wealthy Roman woman who converted to Christianity and was martyred for the faith in 126 CE.  Saint Sabina’s house was known to have been on the crest of the hill overlooking the river, and there was a temple of Juno very close by.  Her relics were brought to the new basilica when a titular church was dedicated to her in 432 CE.

It is not known what happened to the property between Saint Sabina’s death in 126 CE and the building of the present basilica three centuries later.  The founder of the basilica was an Illyrian priest named Peter who took over an imperial home in ruins on the site in 425 CE.  The mosaic epigraph above the entrance translates: “When Celestine had the apostolic summit, and shone out in the whole world as the first bishop, Peter a priest of the City, from the people of Illyria, founded this [church] which you admire, a man worthy of the name at the coming of Christ, who nourished poor people at [his] house, a rich man towards the poor, a poor himself, who fleeing the good things of this present life deserved to hope for the future one.”

Several centuries later the basilica was given to Alberic II of Spoleto who transferred the main entrance from the west end to the south aisle and used the basilica as a fortress to guard the access to the city by the Tiber River from 930-54 CE.  The fortress fell into the possession the Crescenzi family in the Middle Ages, who were succeeded by the Savelli family who updated it by added a palazzo on the east side of the church where the park now is.  In 1218 Pope Honorius III, a member of the Savelli family, approved the foundation of the Dominican Order and gave the church owned by his family to the friars.  The Dominicans built a friary to the west and added a Romanesque campanile.  Saint Dominic lived in the friary before his death in 1221.

In 1527 Santa Sabina was looted during the Sack of Rome by the mutinous troops of Emperor Charles V.  An architect commissioned by Pope Sixtus V to repair and update the basilica destroyed much of the original interior.  Most of the nave windows were blocked up and the medieval decorations were removed. The main altar was reconstructed and several side chapels were added.  More elaborate baroque additions were added in the 17th and 18th century.

When the Kingdom of Italy conquered Rome in 1870, they expelled the Dominicans from Santa Sabina and confiscated the buildings for a hospital for infectious diseases, but it was returned to the Order the early 20th century.  The friars have attempted to restore it to its original medieval style with mixed results.  Nevertheless, it is one of the best examples of an ancient basilica that preserves its original Roman architectural style.