Ash Wednesday: Santa Sabina

Ascending the Aventine Hill, we leave the noise of the Lungotevere behind us and continue up the small road that leads past stuccoed walls and grassy parks .  The Basilica of St. Sabina is soon seen on the right among the pine trees which surround it.  This church provides an appropriate place to transition into Lent for it itself is a witness to the time of transition in which it was built, during the last days of the Western Roman Empire.  This location is traditionally believed to be near the house of the Roman matron St. Sabina, a widow who was converted to the faith by her slave, Seraphia.  Around the year 126, both Seraphia and Sabina were condemned for being Christians and put to death.  Some remains of earlier buildings have been found next to the church which would be of the correct age to have been either the house of St. Sabina, which some traditions place on this site, or the meeting place of an early Christian community.

The current church was built by the priest Peter the Illyrian during the pontificate of Celestine I (422-432).  It has for the most part conserved its original structure, with the main changes being cosmetic ones to the interior.  The current interior of the basilica is largely a modern reconstruction which gives the church roughly the appearance it would have had after a renovation by Eugene II, who reigned between 824 and 827.  His notable contributions to the church were its chancel screen and schola cantorum.  A few centuries later, a significant event occurred as this basilica was entrusted to the Dominicans by Honorius III.  Since then, Saints Dominic, Thomas Aquinas, Michele Ghislieri (later Pius V), as well as countless other friars, have passed through this sacred space.

Renovations carried out in 1559-60 replaced the original mosaic in the apse, which was heavily damaged, with the current fresco, thought to reproduce the image that had previously been there.  A few decades later, in 1586-87, the sanctuary was renovated, with the chancel screen and schola being removed so as to give the church a more modern arrangement, with a new altar placed further forward in an enlarged sanctuary.  Many of the windows were bricked in, making the church considerably darker than it had previously been.  Although this was a common practice during this period, since the thought of the day was that darker spaces were more conducive to prayer, it took away much of the original character of the church.  Thankfully, nearly all of these changes were reversed during a large restoration between 1914 and 1919.  The ninth century screen and schola were reconstructed from surviving fragments.  Some sections could not be found, which explains the blank or etched panels in the screen.  All of the original windows were reopened and restored to their original appearance as well.


*Because of the distribution of ashes, Mass will begin at 6:45am instead of 7am.*

Address: Piazza Pietro d’Illiria, 1

Directions: Take bus 23 or 280 from Piazza delle Rovere (at the bottom of the Gianicolo hill, on the western bank of the Tiber) to the stop just after the bridge to Tiber Island (Lgt. Alberteschi); cross the Ponte Palatino and continue straight, eventually taking the Via dei Greci (to the right of the church with the tall campanile), heading away from the river.  Take the first left (onto Clivio dei Publicii) and continue to the church.

Walking Directions