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Bill Thayer

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The Basilica of S. Sabina on the Aventine


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In the entire city of Rome, S. Sabina is maybe the church that shows us best what the Christian worship space must have been like in Late Antiquity (or the early Middle Ages if you will). From the basilical plan — a plain rectangular hall with two side aisles and no transept — to the antique columns of giallo antico and granite, to the mosaic frieze running over them, to the stone grillwork of the windows from an age in which large panes of glass were not feasible, everything has remained substantially as it was when the church was built fifteen hundred years ago. In fact the building was restored in 1441 and 1481, then completely done over to contemporary tastes in 1587 by Domenico Fontana and again by Borromini in 1643: as much as possible of all that was undone in two separate restorations by Antonio Muñoz in 1914‑1919 and 1936‑1937.

In the early 13c, St. Dominic worked out of S. Sabina; it was here that he received the Rule of the Order from the hands of Pope Honorius III, and the custodian of the church remains the Dominican Order.

The basilica of S. Sabina is also very famous for one precious relic of Antiquity: the great wooden door that is the largest ancient Roman wooden sculpture in the world.

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[ 10/23/00: 9 pages, 9 photos ]

Let's start with that door, then. Something like 6 meters tall and made of cypress wood, which is one of the reasons it has lasted so well, it is composed of 7 ranks of 4 panels each; although the framework is original, 10 of the panels have disappeared over the ages, and 2 are unphotographable without very good equipment because they're behind a Plexiglas shield.

My photos of the 16 others all came out rather nicely: for now, only the 8 smaller panels are online here.

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[ 2/28/03: 3 pages, 3 photos ]

Like most of the old churches of Rome, S. Sabina has its ancient inscriptions. A closer look at the sarcophagus and two Late Antique tombstones: the early Christian epitaph of a 5‑year‑old boy, and an inscription that was almost certainly carved by someone who could neither read nor write.


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A fuller website is on its way; and among the first steps toward it is to provide you with some collected source material. My Web transcriptions of Christian Hülsen's Le Chiese di Roma nel Medio Evo and Mariano Armellini's Le Chiese di Roma are each for the moment only partly online: but they do both include cross-linked sections on this church. Additionally linked there is the brief passage on the church in Titi's Description of the Monuments of Rome (1763).

Site updated: 28 Feb 03