Santa Sabina’s role in the 250 is twofold: it’s a way to teach the basic church architecture vocabulary that will be needed for the rest of the course & it is an architectural example of the transition to the legalization of Christianity in 313 CE in the Roman Empire. Santa Sabina is one of the oldest churches in the Christian World (not THE oldest) and it has been mildly altered since that time so it gives visitors (& your students) a glimpse into religious history from almost 1,700 years ago.
Art Historical Background
Since vocab is the thing that trips kids up the most with architecture, I am going to start there (note, I will ONLY use vocab words in Santa Sabina; other church architecture vocabulary will appear in another church architecture overview blog post).
- Basilica: rectangular building with a large open center space for crowds
- Atrium: outdoor courtyard for gathering
- Narthex: vestibule, porch (this was as far as non-Christians could go in the Early Church)
- Nave: large center rectangular aisle spanning from the narthex doors to the apse; worshipers typically stood in this space, leaving a walkway for the priest during the mass (service)
- Aisle: columned side walkways (usually 1-2 in early churches)
- Clerestory: second story windows allowing light into the nave (also seen in ancient Egyptian architecture)
- Apse: semi-circular niche where the rituals were performed by the priest (sometimes with a little step up)
- Altar: table-top where the priest performs the Eucharistic ritual (essential for the Catholic liturgy)
- Spolia: items that are reused from earlier buildings, i.e. the Corinthian columns in Santa Sabina are spolia probably from a Roman pagan temple
I usually pass out a church plan & elevation to have students label while I teach this church. It’s a handy document for every other church we will encounter throughout the year.
Why a Basilica Model?
One of the first issues that arose for the Early Church after legalization of Christianity was: what should their houses of worship look like? Sounds like a minor problem but for a few hundred years they worshiped in secret either underground in catacombs or in people’s houses. You don’t want your new monotheistic houses of worship to look like the Roman pagan temples. For starters, that would confuse the heck out of people and it would not provide enough visual theological separation between the two religions. Secondly, the nature of Christian worship is vastly different than Greco-Roman pagan religion (FYI, I do not mean pagan in a negative connotation here at all! I am simply using is to create a contrast between Greco-Roman polytheisms and Christian monotheism).
So instead of pulling their architectural models from the religious world, the early Christians converted a secular space: the basilica. The basilica (as seen in image #45. Forum of Trajan) was used for judicial proceedings in the Roman World so it could easily be used to house a large crowd of people which was necessary in Christian liturgy (public ritual worship), it had no connotations with religion, and the structure allowed attention to be concentrated on the apse. In a Roman secular basilica this was where the judge sat, but was later replaced by the priest’s rituals at the altar.
Early Christians did modify the original basilica plan a bit by moving the doors from the long sides to one of the short ends, providing a total focus on the opposite end where the altar was set up and the rituals performed by a priest. Also, with time the narthex was placed in the west so that the altar would be in the east. The East = rising sun = Resurrection of Jesus.
Read more: Student Series! Medieval Church Architecture
Visiting Santa Sabina
This Early Christian church sits on top of the Aventine Hill (one of the seven foundational hills of Ancient Rome) so it is a little ways outside the “historic center” of Rome but worth the walk! The doors in the narthex are original wood, which is absolutely incredible that they survived so long! You will not however actually enter through those doors, or even through the narthex. The new entrance is through a side door, which kinda ruins the original feeling of entering and seeing the altar right away but it’s not that big of a deal. Make sure to go around to the outside narthex though to see the original wooden door panels.
The church originally had more mosaic decoration but if you look closely you can still see some at the top of the columns. It was nearly empty when we went which was perfect for contemplation, photos, and prayer. 🙂 The church is usually open 8:15 am to 12:30 pm & 3:30 pm to 6:00 pm (like most churches in Italy).
Read more: Travel Tips: Visiting Catholic Churches
I literally learned this while writing this blog post but did not know this when I visited Santa Sabina last winter: the Dominican Order has their global headquarters at Santa Sabina and there is a monastery right next door. That probably explains why I saw so many Dominicans walking around!
Second fun fact, Santa Sabina is named for St. Sabina (no surprise there…lol). She was an Early Christian martyr who was beheaded in 125 CE (probably) and her feast day is August 29th (which I why I had this blog post go live then, timing is everything).
- Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History, 15th edition, pgs. 240-243,248-249
- Khan Academy: Christianity, an introduction for the study of art history
- Khan Academy: Architecture and liturgy
- Khan Academy: Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome (video)
- Khan Academy: Santa Sabina
- Atlas Obscura: Basilica of Santa Sabina
- AP Art History: 49. Santa Sabina
- AP Art History Go!: 049 Santa Sabina [Module 4]
- AP Art History 2015-2016: Santa Sabina
- AP Art History Extra Credit: 49. Santa Sabina
- Mrs. White’s AP Art History: Late Antiquity
- Art and History: Rome and the Vatican: pg. 64-64