The Basilica church of Santa Balbina goes back to the 4th century and features in the second week of the Stations in Rome.
The church of Santa Balbina was built over the dwelling of an influential late 2nd and early 3rd century Roman consul, Lucius Fabius Cilonus. His home was located a stone’s throw from the Via Appia, one of ancient Rome’s busiest roads, right next to the Baths of Caracalla and a short walk from the largest public space in imperial Rome, Circus Maximus.
The site of the church, at the heart of a large swathe of the higher echelons of Roman society is remarkable and its importance is explained when we learn more about the patron, St Balbina. Balbina, the daughter of a tribune, Quirinus, suffered from a goiter. Her father was charged with imprisoning, Pope Alexander I, but desperate to help his daughter, her father said that he would convert to Christianity if Alexander could help heal his daughter’s complaint. The imprisoned pope told the girl to kiss the chains that had shackled St Peter so, with his knowledge of where the apostle had been held, Quirinis and Balbina went, found the chains and after having kissed the shackles, Balbina was cured. True to his word, Quirinus and his family were baptised by the pope. In the time of persecutions, Quirinus was martyred in 116 but it is not certain when Balbina died. Some accounts suggest she lived on until 130 AD before being identified as a Christian, martyred and buried next to her father in the catacombs at Praetextatus. Both parent and child were recognised as saints and moved to the church when it was built in the 4th century. St Balbina is depicted among the 140 saints that top the colonnade of St Peter’s square. Her relics are also found in Cologne Cathedral and whilst the majority of her relics are in the altar of this station church, her skull was placed in a reliquary around about the 15th or 16th century. It has been on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York since the late 60’s.
The earliest church grew out of the villa Cilonus which in its various stages of development had been given a large rectangular hall. It was this domestic feature which became the first church.
The church we see today is a fine example of ecclesial simplicity with its mainly plain walls and large domed windows flooding the space with light. It is a long hall with an apse at one end while, along the sides, niches are moulded into the wall. The exposed wooden roof is a rarity in Rome. Pope Leo III repaired the building during his reign at the turn of the 9th century, whilst adding the bell tower and monastery alongside. The impressive episcopal cathedra that is seen at the back of the apse was added before the jubilee year of 1300 whilst 300 years later, in anticipation of the jubilee of 1600, Anastasio Fontebuoni was commissioned to complete the apse fresco of St Balbina in glory.
The studio of Pietro Cavallini, a prolific painter of the late Middle Ages, completed two frescos in the side altars. His signature Madonna and Child can be seen in the third chapel on the right. It bears the Cavallini hallmarks of Our Lady on a throne, draped with brocade and surrounded by saints.
Other niches contain older Byzantine decorations, one shows Christ blessing with three raised fingers, signifying the Trinity whilst his thumb and forefinger bent toward each other show the other two natures of Christ. This image is thought to be the one mentioned in the pilgrim guidebook published at the end of the 12th century and described as the image painted by “no human hand”.
The basilica did not escape the works of the Renaissance with several popes commissioning work. Innocent VIII’s coat of arms can be seen in the porch built by Sixtus V, as an indication of the various works that were carried out. However, perhaps more significant during this period, was the role this church played in rehousing some works from the old basilica of St Peter’s. One in particular is the image of the crucifixion that can be seen in the Blessed Sacrament chapel.