During this season of Lent, the Scots College will again be guiding you around some of the churches that are part of the ancient tradition of the Roman Station Liturgy. Every Ash Wednesday the first Station Mass is at Santa Sabina.
Set on the Aventine Hill high above the Tiber, the church of Santa Sabina dates back to the early 5th century. During the time of the Roman Empire, the Aventine area was populated by the great and the good of Roman society. As a result the neighbourhood contained a large number of palaces and held great influence in the city. In the late 4th century, St. Jerome held his Aventine Circle here before his time in the desert. The great biblical scholar gathered many people interested in the Scriptures including Marcella and Paula, educated women who knew the Sacred Texts in Greek and Latin, and would eventually become saints. Marcella herself was martyred during the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. The invading force devastated the once affluent area and it was from this ruin that Peter of Illyria, a priest from modern day Croatia, built the church of Santa Sabina – giving hope from the despair that crippled Rome in the wake of the invasion.
Sabina herself is said to have been martyred by Vespasian, whilst some link her to the time of Hadrian.
The basilica is the oldest in Rome and is often described as the vision of the perfect church in Roman Christianity. The plans for the church moved away from previous designs and allowed light to flood into the spacious interior that itself was magnificently decorated. Today, the church is the mother church of the Dominican Order.
A long and tall nave stretches towards the apse, where the original mosaic was replaced with a similar design in 1559. In it, Christ is pictured between the good and bad thief, while lower down, lambs are depicted drinking from a stream. The nave itself is lined by 24 marble columns set between the base and tops rescued from the previous Temple of Juno that is originally thought to have been part of this site.
Other points of interest in the church include a floor mosaic that covers the tomb of Munoz de Zamora, a Master General of the Dominican order. The presence of his tomb highlights the long link between the Dominicans and the church. Also, within the complex there is a chapel that has been formed from the original cell of St. Dominic.
Externally the church is largely as it was upon completion in the 5th century. The windows are not made of glass but selenite (a clear mineral, a form of gypsum) and sit high up the walls allowing plenty of light to flood the interior. The main doors of the basilica are also considered original features and are made up of 18 panels – all but one of them depict scenes from the Bible. The odd one out is an image a man in prayer wearing a chlamys, a type of garment widely worn in Ancient Greece.
The first Station Mass is held in the basilica on Ash Wednesday with the Holy Father attending for the imposition of ashes.