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Current time:0:00Total duration:6:42

Video transcript

we're at the top of the aventine hill in Rome at the Basilica of Santa Sabina this dates to the 400s only of a hundred years or so after Constantine legalizes Christianity it's got a fabulous view of the city of Rome and it feels like an important place 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 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 in 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 but a basilica is a great structure for the early Christians because it could hold huge numbers of people 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 a focus on the altar 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 art historians like to talk about how at Santa Sabina we get a sense of what old st. Peters looked like now old st. Peters 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 st. Peter's which got rebuilt in the but the original st. Peters 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 the old st. Peters and the new st. Peters rebuilt in the Renaissance was the burial place of st. 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 looks like when we go into Santa Sabina there's one particularly interesting element in the porch let's take a look at it before we go inside 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 5th century 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 may be one of the very first examples of a crucifixion it's especially interesting because in most early Christian art we don't see the resurrection or the crucifixion mostly have a focus on Christ's ministry and miracles 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 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 in one aisle on either side the space is beautifully and softly lit by sunlight coming in from a clerestory it's interesting to know that there's not glass in there but a crystalline form of gypsum instead that lets 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 SPO Lea these are columns that were reused from a pagan building and here have been repurposed in this Christian context and these columns carry a nave arcade of arches in the Spectrals of the arch is facing the nave our 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 and we see that also in the apse the Eucharist or Holy Communion is part of the Christian liturgy where the priests in acts the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ by offering the bread and the wine which are miraculously the body and blood of Christ this building type will go on to be a source for the architecture of Christian churches throughout the rest of history although mostly with a transact 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 a church ascent upon re novo and Ravenna but here those decorations are gone 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 look 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 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 Sabinas original form that we really do get to be transported back in time to the fifth century