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Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome

The Basilica of Santa Sabina, perched atop Rome's Aventine Hill, offers a glimpse into early Christian architecture. Built in the 400s, it repurposes the basilica, a Roman administrative structure, into a space for worship. Its design, including a longitudinal axis and large interior, accommodates many people and focuses attention on the altar. The church also features a rare 5th-century wooden doorway, possibly depicting one of the earliest crucifixions.
Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're at the top of the Aventine Hill in Rome, at the Basilica of Santa Sabina. - [Beth] This dates to the 400s, only a hundred years or so after Constantine legalizes Christianity. - [Steven] It's got a fabulous view of the city of Rome, and it feels like an important place. - [Beth] The great ancient Roman temples were on nearby hills, like on the Capitoline Hill was the ancient pagan temple dedicated to Jupiter. And so, it made sense to be here to speak of the new official religion of the Roman Empire. - [Steven] Now the early Christians did not invent an entirely new architecture. Instead they looked back to large-scale building from ancient Rome. They repurposed the basilica. This was an ancient pagan Rome, an administrative structure. It's interesting to compare the religious structures of the pagan and the Christian. When we think of a Greek or Roman temple, we're thinking of a house for the god or goddess being honored, and it would not have much interior space. Often just enough for the cult sculpture. - [Beth] But a basilica is a great structure for the early Christians, because it could hold huge numbers of people. It had a sense of imperial authority. It was government building, and so it was associated with the empire, and as an official religion you would want to communicate that. The other important thing was that a basilica could have a longitudinal axis, that is it could focus attention on the opposite end to the entrance, and so large numbers of people could gather for the liturgy with the focus on the altar. - [Steven] And we see that here at Santa Sabina. Each of those enormous arches creates a visual rhythm that leads our eye down to this critical point. - [Beth] Art historians like to talk about how at Santa Sabina we get a sense of what old Saint Peter's looked like. Now old Saint Peter's was important because it was built by Constantine. So when he legalized Christianity, he set about building the first churches in important cities all over the empire. And here in Rome, he commissioned the building of old Saint Peter's, which got rebuilt in the Renaissance. - [Steven] But the original Saint Peter's was about a hundred years older than Santa Sabina. So this building gives us a sense of what that building looked like. However that building did have a couple of important differences. It was much larger than Santa Sabina. It was on an imperial scale, but also importantly the ceiling of the nave was truss, and it had a double aisle on either side of the nave, to help accommodate movement of so many people through that space. - [Beth] The old Saint Peter's and the new Saint Peter's rebuilt in the Renaissance was the burial place of Saint Peter. And so it was a very important pilgrimage site, so it had to accommodate large numbers of people. But it's so wonderful that we get some sense of what that church commissioned by Constantine looked like when we go into Santa Sabina. - [Steven] There's one particularly interesting element in the porch, let's take a look at it before we go inside. - [Beth] We're looking at a carved wooden doorway that dates from the fifth century. Now it's been heavily restored, but it's remarkable that a wooden doorway carved with scenes from the Old and New Testament survives from the fifth century. - [Steven] Generally organic materials like wood don't last this long. But there's one particular scene that is interesting to art historians, and it's all the way in the upper left corner of the door. It maybe one of the very first examples of a crucifixion. - [Beth] It's especially interesting because in most early Christian art, we don't see the resurrection or the crucifixion, mostly you have a focus on Christ's ministry and miracles. - [Steven] Well we don't actually see the cross, what we see is a large central figure with his arms out, and then on either side are two smaller figures, presumably the two thieves that were crucified on either side of Christ. So let's go inside. - [Beth] We've entered Santa Sabina, the space is quite open. We get a very clear view through the nave and one aisle on either side, down toward the apse where the altar is. The apse is that semicircular space opposite the entrance of the church. And unlike so many other later churches it doesn't have a transept, that is an aisle that went across at one end of the church. But here we have a very simple space with the nave, the apse on one end and one aisle on either side. - [Steven] The space is beautifully and softly lit by sunlight coming in from a clerestory. It's interesting to note that there's not glass in there, but a crystalline form of gypsum instead, that let's in a tremendous amount of light. Now this particular church has a flat ceiling above the nave with enormous wooden beams that help to support it. It has a pitched roof above that, but one of the most distinctive features of this church is the glorious columns that line either side of the nave. This is spolia. These are columns that were reused from a pagan building, and here have been repurposed in this Christian context. - [Beth] And these columns carry a nave arcade of arches. - [Steven] In the spandrels of the arches facing the nave are images created out of inlaid stone that show a chalice and bread plates. And so repeatedly down the length of the nave we have a reference to the eucharist. - [Beth] And we see that also in the apse. The eucharist or holy communion is part of the Christian liturgy where the priest enacts the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ by offering the bread and the wine, which are miraculously the body and blood of Christ. - [Steven] This building type would go on to be a source for the architecture of Christian churches throughout the rest of history. - [Beth] Although mostly with a transept, which comes to signify the cross that Christ was crucified on. Between the nave arcade and the clerestory we have a wall that in most early Christian churches would have contained decoration, fresco or mosaic, like in the church of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, but here those decorations are gone. - [Steven] One of the other most appealing features of this church is the screen, which separates the sanctuary from the nave. It is elaborately carved. So Santa Sabina gives us a sense of what the earliest Christian buildings looked like, as it looks back to the pagan tradition. But at the same time it also sets up the form that so many Christian churches after will follow. - [Beth] Like so many churches in Rome, over the centuries, the space has been transformed. There are two Baroque chapels that have been added, but so much remains of Santa Sabina's original form that we really do get to be transported back in time to the fifth century. (jazzy piano music)