Medieval Europe + Byzantine
- The Good Shepherd in Early Christianity — Hermes recast
- The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna
- Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (quiz)
- Santa Maria Maggiore
- Santa Sabina
- Santa Sabina (quiz)
- Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
- Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus
- Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus
- Santa Maria Antiqua
- Santa Pudenziana
- Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus
- Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (quiz)
- Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome
By Dr. Allen Farber
Exterior view of the apse, Basilica of Santa Sabina, c. 432 C.E., Rome (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA)
Basilicas—a type of building used by the ancient Romans for diverse functions including as a site for law courts—is the category of building that Constantine's architects adapted to serve as the basis for the new churches. The original Constantinian buildings are now known only in plan, but an examination of a still extant early fifth century Roman basilica, the Church of Santa Sabina, helps us to understand the essential characteristics of the early Christian basilica.
View down the nave towards the apse, Basilica of Santa Sabina, c. 432 C.E., Rome (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Basilica of Constantine (also known as the Aula Palatina), 4th century C.E., Trier, Germany (photo: Kleon3, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Like the Trier basilica, the Church of Santa Sabina has a dominant central axis that leads from the entrance to the apse, the site of the altar. This central space is known as the nave, and is flanked on either side by side aisles. The architecture is relatively simple with a wooden, truss roof. The wall of the nave is broken by clerestory windows that provide direct lighting in the nave. The wall does not contain the traditional classical orders articulated by columns and entablatures. Now plain, the walls apparently originally were decorated with mosaics.
Interior view, The Pantheon, c. 125 C.E., Rome (photo: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0)
This interior would have had a dramatically different effect than the classical building. As exemplified by the interior of the Pantheon constructed in the second century by the Emperor Hadrian, the wall in the classical building was broken up into different levels by the horizontals of the entablatures. The columns and pilasters form verticals that tie together the different levels. Although this decor does not physically support the load of the building, the effect is to visualize the weight of the building. The thickness of the classical decor adds solidity to the building.
View of the aisle, Basilica of Santa Sabina, c. 432 C.E., Rome (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In marked contrast, the nave wall of Santa Sabina has little sense of weight. The architect was particularly aware of the light effects in an interior space like this. The glass tiles of the mosaics would create a shimmering effect and the walls would appear to float. Light would have been understood as a symbol of divinity. Light was a symbol for Christ. The emphasis in this architecture is on the spiritual effect and not the physical. The opulent effect of the interior of the original Constantinian basilicas is brought out in a Spanish pilgrims description of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem:
"The decorations are too marvelous for words. All you can see is gold, jewels and silk...You simply cannot imagine the number and sheer weight of the candles, tapers, lamps and everything else they use for the services...They are beyond description, and so is the magnificent building itself. It was built by Constantine and...was decorated with gold, mosaic, and precious marble, as much as his empire could provide."
Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century (online catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Mary Joan Leith and Allyson Sheckler, "The Crucifixion Conundrum and the Santa Sabina Doors," Harvard Theological Review, 2010.
Essay by Dr. Allen Farber
Want to join the conversation?
- Was it a coincidence that the Roman basilica and the cross would look so similar from a birds-eye-view layout?(7 votes)
- I just fixed the photos for this article. As you may be able to see, there isn't a transept in Santa Sabina. This is in keeping with the original Roman form of the basilica. The addition of the crossing hall called the transept is a later development and so the cruciform church plan (basilica + transept) is a christian development.(15 votes)
- Is there any record or possible remains that would tell us what was represented on the walls of Santa Sabina church and/or Aula Palatina?(3 votes)
- You might look at a few extant examples such as:
the nave mosaics high up on the walls of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome or
the nave mosaics at the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna(4 votes)
- 'The emphasis in this architecture is on the spiritual effect and not the physical.' Why does the author say that ?(1 vote)
- The light makes the walls dissolve in glimmering patterns and make the building look like its floating. Compare it to a different, massive Roman structures like the Colosseum, which just look plain massive, and you can see what the authors meant.(5 votes)
- What would be the function of this specific basilica?(1 vote)
- It functioned as a an indoor space where people wishing to pray could stay dry while they did so. It functioned as an indoor space where people could gather for public worship and participation in the sacraments of the church.(4 votes)
- Just out of curiosity, has anyone investigated the possibility that the mosaic above the spolia columns might have been plastered over. I notice that there are clear stains in the material there that remain probably from "framed" mosaic. Is there something underneath that surface which is causing the stains?(2 votes)
- Is there any information on the mosaics (or frescoes) that would have decorated the nave wall that are now missing?(1 vote)