Not far from Circus Maximus, Santa Sabina is located up on Aventine Hill. Why this church was chosen for the start of Lent is not exactly known. One thought is that because of it’s location, one had to make a strong climb uphill to reach the church, this climb was symbolic of the efforts necessary to climb to spiritual perfection. It could also be that Gregory the Great fell in love with the church when he sought refuge here during the plague, he called it “the gem of the Aventine.”
Santa Sabina is one of Rome’s domus ecclesiae, or house churches. During the persecutions, Christians had to meet secretly to celebrate the sacraments. Often they would do so in the homes of the wealthy as they were the one’s who were able to accommodate the faithful. These homes were given the title, or titulus, of the owner. In this case Titulus Sabina. Once Christianity was legal, the houses were converted into churches and most of these churches kept the original name. The former property owners were often saints, Sabina was a martyr, so the Titulus changed to Santa, and now we have Santa Sabina.
The basilica was originally built between AD 422-432, rebuilt in 834 and restored in 1914. The architectural highlight of this basilica has to be the cyprus doors. The doors are carved with scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The quality of the carvings vary, some panels are even missing. But what is fascinating is that the doors are original, from the fifth century. That makes these wooden doors over 1500 years old! Also interesting to note is that the crucifixion scene is thought to be one of the earliest surviving depictions of Christ’s crucifixion.
One thing that stands out as you enter Santa Sabina is the light. Large windows made of silenite, not glass, let in a lot of light. This was actually quite common in early churches, but we do not see it much today. Many of the windows were covered up over time because of the idea that darkness would be more conducive to prayer and meditation.
Four saints are buried here, Pope Saint Alexander, Saint Eventius, Saint Theodulus and, of course, Saint Sabina.
Santa Sabina is not only one of our earliest churches, it also has an important history with a holy priest named Dominic. For it was this church that in 1218 Pope Honorius III entrusted to Dominic to establish a friary for his new order, the Dominicans. Though it is no longer the head church for the Dominicans, they do still serve Santa Sabina. If you have the opportunity to visit, find a friar and they will happily show you to Dominic’s cell and give you a peek at an orange tree descended from one planted by Saint Dominic himself.
Since the time of John XXIII, the Holy Father typically travels to Santa Sabina to celebrate Mass here each year on Ash Wednesday. The collect church these days, though not officially replaced, is Sant’Anselmo.