When it comes to churches in Rome, few have escaped the ubiquitous reach of the Baroque. Cascading gold, brilliant sunbeams, marble that bears the contours of water rather than stone and playful cherubs perched on clouds are everywhere you look. And hey, for a Bernini fan like me, that’s just fine. But it’s nice to see a bit of variation, and some reminders of what came before. One of those virtually untouched reminders is the Basilica of Santa Sabina.
On many occasions, I would make a mini-pilgrimage to Santa Sabina with Cream City Catholic contributor A.L.P. As you learned from his previous article, both of us studied in Rome for several years, and we got to know the city like the back of our hands. When you find yourself in Rome, and one of your closest friends is also a theologian who specializes in sacred art and liturgy, you feel pretty blessed. An afternoon walk through the Eternal City after lunch and espresso would usually turn into a lesson in art, liturgy and early Church history. These discussions, on anything from the Baroque, the Church Fathers or Byzantium would last until dinner. We’d finish the evening with a stroll through dimly lit, winding cobble stone streets, passing ancient Roman ruins and finally ending up at a near empty Saint Peter’s Square. Several years later, with those memories still very much alive, we thought we’d tag team this article on a very special, sacred place in Rome: Santa Sabina.
The walk up the Aventine hill makes you feel like you’re leaving Rome; along the winding path, you will at first encounter the rose garden, magnificent when in bloom. You might also pass by the non-descript monastery of the Camaldolese nuns. This historic monastery was once the home of Sor Nazarena, one of Rome’s last anchorites, and surprisingly, born in Boston. When you get to the top of the Aventine, you’ve reached a serene oasis above the activity of the city, and you’re rewarded with one of the best views of Rome from the peaceful orange orchard. A gentle breeze will carry with it the scent of citrus as you take it all in. And of course, there’s the Basilica of Santa Sabina that has rested atop the Aventine for almost two-thousand years like a fortress.
Santa Sabina is one of the few churches that escaped the Baroque barrage. It is the oldest church in Rome that still retains its original, fifth-century basilica layout, virtually uncluttered by Baroque beauty and extravagance. Its nave is long, and ancient pillars, supporting graceful arches, line the sides. Stepping into this basilica gives the visitor the chance to view the setting for early Roman liturgical life, circa 450AD. The massive wooden doors that lead into Santa Sabina date all the way back to the 400s! It’s astonishing that doors carved from wood have survived this long. They are so dry that you wouldn’t be able to hammer a nail through them! The Roman Empire had not yet fallen, and these doors were just as you see them now. They boast large square panels, each depicting a different scene from the Old and New Testaments. One of these scenes shows the Crucifixion, and is most likely the oldest artistic representation of Our Lord’s death in the world. Christ is a well-built man, with the beard and hair symbolic of a great man of wisdom, with the voluntariness of his strength, lifting his arms up for the salvation of the world. Located on the top section of the door, this moving scene gives true meaning to the Old Testament images portrayed beneath it. More on the doors in a bit.
For this article, we thought it would be a good idea to take a trip back in time, to the early liturgical life of fifth-century Romans who worshipped at Santa Sabina. What would Divine Liturgy be like for Romans at the sunset of the Western Roman Empire? How would this liturgy compare to the liturgy today, as experienced in the Extraordinary Form, also known as the Tridentine Mass?
As you enter the portico of Santa Sabina, and pass underneath those ancient doors, you will see an expanse of austere space emblazoned with light. Let your eyes adjust. Notice the contrast of light and dark, shadow and radiance. See how the beams of light are accentuated in the church’s misty atmosphere and reflected in the smooth marble floor. Santa Sabina today, though beautiful, is but a shell of the glory it once was. Its upper walls, as well as the apse, would have been covered in mosaic. The decoration would have been accentuated with the myriad colours of glass tile. The altar, unadorned with flowers, would have been covered with the finest of linen and liturgical vessels, such as candelabra burning with nard, crosses bejeweled, Gospel books in gilded covers, chalices of silver and gold.
Take note of the sanctuary. The altar is elevated from the ground, as if on a platform. Below it, one can see the tomb of Saint Sabina, the early Church martyr whose house is underneath this church. Altars, following an ancient custom, were built on top of the tombs of martyrs. The martyrs, having suffered with their lives for the orthodox Faith, were configured to the suffering and crucified Christ; their deaths participated in His death! Thus, it is fitting that, at the re-presentation of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, which is the Mass, the martyr should be entombed in the altar awaiting the resurrection on the Last Day. In fact, the martyr’s death is often called his “Passion”.
However, the altar is there to lead us to God. It is like the command central of an aircraft carrier. The bishop ascends its steps, offers the Holy Sacrifice, facing the Liturgical East, the symbol of the Rising Sun! In ancient Basilicas like Santa Sabina, the Eastern wall of a Church would have been embellished with delicate selenite windows to let the light of the rising sun in, a powerful symbol of Christ in the majesty of His Divine Glory rising from the tomb. During Mass, the bishop would face the Liturgical East, the New Jerusalem, the Presence of God. It was from the East that the early Christians also expected the Second Coming of Christ. In fact, it was not just the bishop or the priest who faced East. All faced East, clergy and laity. But in Santa Sabina, where is the Liturigical East? Remember that stunning wooden door? Everyone faced the direction of the door (East), and the massive wall around it, which was covered with brilliant mosaics! Priest and people faced the same direction and, differing from modern practice, the people stood in the side aisles, men on one side and women on the other, leaving the middle aisle free for liturgical purposes, like elaborate processions. (Also, there were no pews!) This is the reason, rather the theology behind the priest facing East during Mass. As a ship heads toward safe harbour, so the people of God are lead toward the New Jerusalem by Christ, whose ambassador is the priest. So the next time you hear the old canard about the priest “turning his back” to the people, remember this rich symbolism and push back. The early Christians had no concept of the priest facing them, they were all facing God!
It wasn’t until the medieval period that the apse or “front” of the church replaced the doorway as the unified direction of prayer. This tradition holds up to this day, except of course for the priest, who now faces the people in a remarkable break from nearly 2,000 years of liturgical custom. Whether facing the doors as the Liturgical East, or the Apse in the Sanctuary, everyone faced the same direction from the first century until the late 1960s! (Never in the history of the Church, did the priest ever face the people, until forty years ago.) During the reading of the Gospel and homily, the faithful during these early Church liturgies would turn to face the direction of the bishop or priest, after which the call would issue forth, “Conversi ad dominum!”, “Turn to the Lord!” and everyone would once more face East.
Another example of the importance of liturgical orientation is evident in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass today (as experienced at Saint Stanislaus in Milwaukee). When the deacon sings the Gospel at High Mass he faces North, and at Low Mass the Gospel is read at the north end of the Altar. Why North? It is a symbol of bringing the Word of God to the barbarians in the early centuries of Christianity. The pagan barbarian tribes invaded the Empire from the North, so in that direction, we preach the Good News.
So, imagine a packed Santa Sabina in the mid 400s. The nave of the church would be open to allow for long, elaborate processions. Clouds of fragrant incense billow toward the heavens, contouring the huge rays of light penetrating the massive selenite windows above the doors of the basilica. Priest and people faced one direction in prayer to God. It was a unified show of force and faith. Here Christ was present in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Here, while the sun set on an Empire, the faithful stood to greet the rising sun, symbolizing the Resurrection of The Father’s Son from the dead.
*Thanks to liturgist A.L.P. for his insights for this article.