Friday, February 4, 2011

(3) Basilica of Santa Sabina

Today's photos:


1. The apse of the basilica of Santa Sabina as seen from the Garden of the Orange Trees.

2. The four twisting columns in the atrium.

3. The view through the hole in the wall of the atrium. St. Dominic's orange tree???

4. The interior of the basilica has ancient columns from a former temple of Juno.

5. The mosaic tombstone of Fra' Munoz de Zamora in the floor of the main aisle.

6. This inscription is the only original wall mosaic which has survived.

7. A view of Rome from the terrace of the Garden of the Orange Trees looking over the rooftops of Trastevere. The dome of St. Peter's stands out in the center background while the sparkling clean Lighthouse of the Janiculum is seen in the left background. The church belltower in the center foreground is that of the basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.




Santa Sabina is one of the oldest of the basilicas surviving from the early Christian period.  It was founded in 425 by a priest from Dalmatia, Peter of Illyria.  The basilica gets its name from a wealthy Roman matron by the name of Sabina over whose house it was built.  It underwent major restorations in the 9th and 12th centuries and was radically changed (some would say "disfigured") in the late 16th and early 17th centuries by Domenico Fontana, the architect of Pope Sixtus V, and by Francesco Borromini.  (For an interesting story about Sixtus V and Domenico Fontana, see The Sights of Rome, Chapter 7, The Dome of St. Peter's Basilica).  Fortunately, the basilica was skillfully restored to its original look between 1919 and 1937 by Antonio Munoz.  After 1870 when papal Rome fell to the Italian troops of unification, many monasteries were suppressed, including this church which was turned into a city hospital for treatment of contagious diseases.


In 1219 the basilica was given by Pope Honorius III to St. Dominic for his newly founded order of Dominican monks.  The church is still staffed today by the Dominican order.  In the monastery attached to the church, St. Dominic's room still exists, now turned into a chapel.  Here the Dominican saint once had a meeting with another famous founder of a religious order, St. Francis of Assisi.  Another famous name associated with Santa Sabina is the Dominican monk St. Thomas Aquinas who taught in the monastery.




There is a legend which states that Dominic brought to Rome from his native Spain an orange tree which he planted in the garden of the monastery's cloister.  Today you can see through a hole in the wall of the atrium the spot where the tree was planted.  The fruit-bearing tree which is seen there now is said to have   sprung up miraculously over the withered remains of the original one.


Another legend about Dominic is that one day the devil threw a black rock at him as the saint was praying.  The rock did not hit him, but shattered into twenty pieces which were later recomposed onto a twisting column to the left of the entrance door.  The reality is that the rock was probably an ancient Roman scale-weight which was accidentally broken by Domenico Fontana during his restoration of 1587. I like the legendary story better!


In the atrium are eight ancient columns, four on each side directly across from one another.  Four of them are granite and four are yellow marble and twisting.  But the doors at the far end of the atrium leading into the church are by themselves worth the climb up the Aventine hill where this church is located.  They consist of twenty-eight panels containing scenes from the Old and New Testaments beautifully carved in cypress in the 5th century, and restored in 1836.  The top panel on the far left is one of the most ancient representations we have of the Crucifixion.  It shows Christ crucified between the two thieves.  Of the original twenty-eight panels, eighteen survive, and their order was probably changed during that restoration of 1836.  Unfortunately some of the panels are so high up, including the one of the Crucifixion,  that they are difficult to see and photograph.


A curiosity


One of the panels depicts the scene of the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea in an attempt to escape from the Pharaoh and his soldiers.  During the restoration, the face of the Pharaoh who is about to be drowned in the sea was given the facial features of Napoleon Bonaparte.  At the time of the restoration in 1836 Napoleon had been dead for fifteen years, but apparently the restorer harbored a deep hatred of him which he expressed in this curious and interesting way.


In the interior of the basilica are two rows of twelve columns separating the side aisles from the center aisle.  These are ancient Roman columns which were taken from a former temple of Juno which once existed in this area.  The walls of the basilica were originally lined with mosaics, but the only one remaining is the one on the back wall above the doors.  It is a very beautiful inscription in gold letters running almost the entire width of the church recalling the founder, Peter of Illyria, and the pope in whose pontificate it was built, Celestine I (422-432).  On either side of the inscription is a female figure, one symbolizing the pagan origins of the Church (Ecclesia ex gentibus), the other symbolizing its Jewish origins (Ecclesia ex circumcisione). 


In a protective niche on the wall in the right aisle are the remains of a column which is thought to have belonged to the pre-existing building, the house of the Roman matron Sabina.  In the center of the wide center aisle is the  unusual mosaic tombstone of a Dominican monk, Fra Munoz de Zamora, who died in 1300.


A curiosity


The basilica was even used once for a papal conclave which took an unusual twist.  When Honorius IV died in 1287, the cardinals met in Santa Sabina to elect his successor.  However, a plague, probably malaria, broke out in Rome at that time, causing the death of six of the cardinals, while others fell seriously ill.  The conclave was promptly suspended.  All the surviving cardinals left Rome to escape the plague, except for one, Girolamo Masci, who stayed and courageously worked to purify the basilica and render it free of the plague.  When the plague subsided, the cardinals reconvened the conclave in the basilica and, possibly out of gratitude and admiration, elected Girolamo as pope.  The humble Franciscan monk, however, declined the election, so the cardinals took another vote and elected him a second time.  This time he accepted and took the name Nicholas IV (1288-1292).


Santa Sabina has traditionally been the church where the pope goes to begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday.  The tradition of the papal Ash Wednesday service in this ancient basilica dates back to the pontificate of Gregory VII (1073-1085).  In the last few years of the pontificate of John Paul II (1978-2005), the ceremony was held in St. Peter's Basilica because of the failing health of the pope.  After his election in 2005, Benedict XVI resumed using Santa Sabina as the site of the Ash Wednesday service.


The Aventine Hill


Since we are on the Aventine hill, one of the famous Seven Hills of Rome, for our visit to the basilica of Santa Sabina,  I would like to point out two other attractions you won't want to miss.  Just up the street from the basilica is the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta where you will find a very unusual sight.  There is a large gate which leads into the grounds of the residence of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta.  If you look through the keyhole in the center of the gate, you will have a most unusual view of the Dome of St. Peter's framed between two rows of trees.


Walking back the way you came, just past the basilica of Santa Sabina, you will find the entrance to a beautiful walled garden called Giardino degli Aranci (Garden of the Orange Trees).  At the far end of the garden is a terrace from where you can enjoy a beautiful view of the City.  You can see many of Rome's famous landmarks, such as the Victor Emanuel monument, the dome of St. Peter's Basilica and that of the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, as well as other church domes and towers. Just opposite the Aventine is the green of the Janiculum hill with some of its monuments visible.  The Tiber River flows by just below you between the Aventine and the Janiculum.  The panorama from this terrace on the Aventine is one of the three best views of Rome, along with those from the Janiculum and the Pincio hills.


Celebrating the Unification of Italy: 1861-2011


Italy will have an additional national holiday this year (as if it really needed another one!).  The holiday will be on March 17, the date on which Victor Emanuel II, in 1861, proclaimed il Regno d'Italia (the Kingdom of Italy).  The decision to declare the holiday was made jointly by the Head of State, Giorgio Napolitano and the Head of Government, Silvio Berlusconi.  There is one catch, however.  The holiday will be a one-time celebration, only during this 150th anniversary year of the Unification of Italy.  Never mind the patriotic theme. Just the thought of the holiday is causing the Italians to salivate because March 17 this year falls on a Thursday.  This gives them the opportunity to fare il ponte (make a bridge), that is, make a long weekend out of the Thursday holiday by taking Friday off, too!  This is something the Italians are experts at doing!


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