In our walkings around I noticed signs for Santa Sabina – a very old church on the Aventine hill. Built between 422 and 432, it is unusual in that it retains its original simple architectural design and has not been heavily and gaudily decorated over the years.
Since 1218 the church has been in the hands of the Dominican Order of Preachers. St. Dominic himself lived in the adjacent friary. Among other notable residents is St. Thomas of Aquinas.
We know two good Sinsinawa Dominican sisters (Teresa and Roberta) and Roberta informed me that there was a 1st Century structure on the lower “levels” of the Church. So, late one afternoon, John and I climbed the Aventine Hill, which was not far from our hotel, to find Santa Sabina and look for the ancient structure.
During the Middle Ages the Aventine Hill area was entirely rural, occupied by farms, vineyards and hay fields.
Sabina was a Roman matron who was beheaded in CE 114 because she had been converted to Christianity by her servant, Seraphia, who was stoned to death. The Church is built on the site of Sabina’s Roman home. Sabina was declared a Christian saint. (I wonder why Seraphia was not sainted as well?)
We went in what appeared to be the side door. I love the way the Churches in Rome are open to the public and there are no fees or apparent “guards” around. I particularly liked the simplicity of this Church, especially the windows. The windows look like they are decorated in a kind of “zen tangle” art. I will see if I can enlarge a photo and reproduce the patterns.
There were some locked gates that looked to lead down somewhere. John found a fenced “hole” on the side of the church that had an ancient column arising to the present level. We figured out that if we put a euro in the box, a light would come on and we could look down. There is also what looked to be a tomb of an important cleric in the floor.
I went out what I thought were the “front” doors of the church but I could not find the “famous” wooden door that supposedly has the earliest depictions of the Crucifixion on it. Only some ancient writings on the wall.
There is a fountain in the side courtyard and an entrance to a park where we watched a magic show and found some great views overlooking Rome all the way to the Vatican.
Here is an extract from Living With Wisdom, Jim Forest’s biography of Thomas Merton:
“… The next day, Merton climbed the Aventine Hill to visit Santa Sabina, one of Rome’s oldest churches. Once inside, he knew that he had to pray there. It was impossible to play the guidebook-studying tourist any longer. Yet prayer in a public place was intensely embarrassing. Tom, age seventeen, regarded himself as urbane and sophisticated. “That day in Santa Sabina, although the church was almost empty, I walked across the stone floor mortally afraid that a poor devout old Italian woman was following me with suspicious eyes.” Despite his self-consciousness, he managed to cross himself with blessed water as he entered the church and then, kneeling at the communion rail, to recite the Our Father over and over again. For all his fears and embarrassment, he walked out of Santa Sabina feeling reborn. His final week in Rome was a time of discovery and joy such as he hadn’t known in years.”