The Basilica of Santa Sabina, nestled in Rome, stands as a testament to early Christian architecture, with its origins dating back to 422-432 AD. Borrowing elements from ancient pagan structures, this basilica serves as a prime example of how early Christian basilicas were designed and executed. In this comprehensive article, we will delve into the architectural details, historical context, and spiritual symbolism of this magnificent basilica.
The Birth of the Christian Basilica: Constantinian Influence
Early Christian basilicas drew heavily from the designs of their Roman predecessors. These Roman basilicas were multifunctional spaces, serving purposes such as law courts and public assembly halls. The Constantine architects adapted these structures to create the early Christian basilicas, which have evolved over time. The Basilica of Santa Sabina, though constructed in the fifth century, retains many features of the original Constantinian basilicas.
According to legend, the house of Roman women named Sabina once stood on this spot. St. Sabina is said to have been run through with a sword during the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian and so received the palm of martyrdom. Between 425 and 432, St Peter of Illyria built the church above a house belonging to the Roman Christian Sabina. Pope Eugene II had it furnished with marble in 824. In 1222, Pope Honorius III donated the church to the Dominicans.
The centre portal of the narthex houses the oldest carved wooden door in Christian art, which was produced around 432. The reliefs wrought from African cedar, designed by unknown artists with sensitivity and expressive energy, show scenes from the Old and New Testament.
18 out of the original 28 panels have been preserved, although not in their original order. In the five lateral rows of door panels, the following are easily recognizable from the top left to the right:
1st row: crucifixion, women with angel at the tomb, three Magi, disciples at Emmaus; 2nd row: healing the blind and the bread and wine miracle of Cana, Moses’ miracle of quails and manna, and the miracle of striking (he rock, the ascension of Christ, Christ above the church triumphantly crowned by St Peter and St Paul.
3rd row: Christ with the doubting Thomas, Christ appears to the women after his resurrection, the denial of St Peter, Habakkuk; 4th row: Moses with the burning bush and receiving the tablets of stone, Zacharias silent in the temple, passage through the Red Sea and the brazen snake, ascension of Elijah; 5th row: Pilate sentencing Christ, Jesus before Caiaphas or Moses before the pharaoh.
On the inside, the 20m/66ft-high nave is bounded by 24 Corinthian columns of Parian marble. On the wall above the entrance is one of the oldest mosaics in Rome: the figures of two women who symbolize the »church from the heathen« (ecclesia ex gentibus) and the »church from the Jews« (ex circumcisione, from circumcision).
The Basilica of Santa Sabina stands as a monumental testament to early Christian architecture, with its intricate fusion of classical Roman elements and the spiritual symbolism of light. As we journey through the spaces of this magnificent basilica, we are transported to a time when art, architecture, and spirituality were seamlessly intertwined, leaving us with a