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Santa Sabina: The oldest extant basilica in Rome

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Visiting this important early Christian site is like taking a step backward through time.

The Catholic Church has no shortage of gigantic houses of worship with impressive architecture and artistic masterpieces, especially in Rome. With about 900 churches in the Eternal City, pilgrims and faithful can find examples of Catholic churches from just about every era of our 2,000-year-old religion.

While church buildings from the Renaissance era tend to draw the most visitors with their unmatched frescoes and sculptures, there remain few that can challenge the beauty and historical significance of the oldest extant basilica in Rome: the Basilica of Saint Sabina.

Constructed in the 4th century, St. Sabina’s stands as a monument to early Christian architecture, much of which was drawn from the Ancient Roman world. When Rome was still pagan, a basilica (from the Greek for “king’s hall”) was a government building, used as a forum or even a court, but with the rise of Christianity, the style of a large domed structure with a wide space to accommodate great crowds was repurposed for religious use.

St. Sabina’s is believed to have drawn inspiration for its design from Old St. Peter’s Basilica, which was built roughly 100 years earlier. This increases the historical value of St. Sabina’s, as to visit this storied old church is the closest we can come to experiencing the first iteration of St. Peter’s, which was replaced by the St. Peter’s we know today in the 16th century.

The site where St. Sabina’s stands was once the site of an imperial homestead believed to be owned by the early Christian martyr St. Sabina, who was killed for her Christian faith. The basilica was erected not far from the site of a temple of Juno, much of which was recycled for its construction. In fact, the nave of the basilica features 24 marble columns with perfectly matched Corinthian capitals and bases from the temple of Juno.

Another important aspect of this ancient basilica is the artwork carved into the large cypress wood doors. While 10 of the original 28 carvings have been lost, among the remaining carvings is the oldest known depiction of the crucifixion. While the cross is not present, a figure appearing to be Christ stands with his arms outstretched, showing the wounds of the Passion. At either side of Jesus are two other figures standing similarly, believed to be the thieves whom Christ was crucified alongside.

The grounds of the Basilica of St. Sabina is also home to a convent where many famous Catholics have lived, including: St. Dominic, Pope Pius V, Blessed Ceslaus, St. Hyacinth and St Thomas Aquinas. In the 13th century, while St. Dominic was in residence, Pope Honorius III launched the Order of Preachers, who are today known as Dominicans. Later in the same century, St. Thomas Aquinas restructured the school and began a specialized education program known as the studium provinciale. In these lessons Aquinas taught moral and natural philosophies.

St. Sabina’s is still surprising us with its treasures. As recently as 2010, an early fresco was unveiled that appears to be a depiction of the Virgin Mary, along with some of the apostles.

For more information about this important historical Catholic site, as well as a mini tour, take a look at the video by Smart History featured above.

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