San Saba is an 10th century minor basilica, parish and titular church at Piazza Gian Lorenzo Bernini 20 on the Piccolo Aventino, now in its own rione of San Saba but formerly in the historic rione of Ripa. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.
The dedication is to St Sabas (439-532), one of the fathers of Eastern monasticism.
Excavations in 1909 under the present church did not confirm this, but discovered a 7th century oratory which would have been founded by monks from the monastery of Mar Saba in Palestine who settled there as refugees in 645. This great monastery had been founded by St Sabas in the Judaean Desert south-east of Bethlehem in 483, and it has had a continuous history since then. However, in 614 the Sassanid Persians conquered the Holy Land and massacred many monks, causing others to flee including those who founded this expatriate monastery.
The "oratory" (actually a monastery church) was converted from an aula or apsed meeting-hall, built around the year 400 as part of a large private house. It occupied the first four and a half bays of the central nave of the present church, and fabric from it survives. The monks excavated the floor of the aula, and created a little catacomb for themselves. The oratory was apparently dedicated to a St Silvia -but not the one that was Pope St Gregory's mother.
The new Byzantine-rite monastery had a period of glory in the 7th and 8th centuries, when Greek-speaking clergy were very influential in Rome, and served as a diplomatic centre in relations with the Byzantine Empire. The antipope Constantine was held prisoner here after being deposed and blinded in 768.
However, early in the 10th century the monastery failed in the context of increasing hostility between the churches of Rome and Constantinople, and was granted to the Benedictine abbey of Montecassino. They immediately rebuilt the church in the form in which it now exists. Also, in 1054 the Casale di Celsano was granted to the monastery by Pope Leo IX and the shrine church of Santa Maria in Celsano was built there (this is in the countryside to the west of the city).
In the 15th century the church and monastery had the title of San Salvatore della Balbina, and as such was thoroughly restored or rebuilt by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini (the future Pope Pius III) in 1463. By this time, monastic life here had become degenerate.
As a result, the complex was passed on again in 1503 to another monastic order, this time to the Cistercians, who tried and failed to establish an abbey here and settled at Santa Croce instead. This stillborn abbey seems to have been called Santi Tommaso e Saba, and its only appearance in history seems to have been its construction of the church of Santa Maria del Soccorso e San Filippo Neri a Castelporziano.
So the pope handed the church over to the Canons of the Lateran in 1513, but they did not want it and so the property ended up belonging to the German-Hungarian College from 1573. Initially, the monastery was used as a summer retreat and quiet place for the students and staff.
This institution kept possession until the 20th century, although in 1903 it was reported that there was only one Mass a week and the complex was generally disused.
Up until the explosive growth of Rome at the end of the 19th century, the church was one of the most isolated inside the city walls and was only approached by a long dead-end driveway from the Viale Aventino (this is the present Via San Saba). It was the only building on the Little Aventine, being surrounded by farmland.
There was a major and much-needed restoration at the start of the 20th century, completed in 1909. Unfortunately perhaps, it included a "purification" which involved destruction of Baroque items and a return to what was imagined to have been the appearance of the church in mediaeval times. In this, the schola cantorum was re-erected in front of the sanctuary as at San Clemente, the baldacchino was re-set and the floor and bishop's throne restored. The work was done on the basis of a late 16th century description penned by Pompeo Ugonio.
Also, in the process the entire nave floor was dug out, archaelogical investigations made leaving a void, and the floor re-laid.
In respose to suburban development between 1907 and 1914 (the last, incidentally, in the Centro Storico), in 1931 the church was made parochial and entrusted to the Society of Jesus, which still administers the parish. This is because they were responsible for the college.
There was another restoration in 1943. The restored schola cantorum was proving a nuisance in a parish church, and was demolished again. The authentically mediaeval bit was put back in the right hand aisle.
In 2010 the portico was repaired and restored.
Layout and fabricEditThe plan is typically basilical, with a nave and side aisles. There is a short, unusual second side aisle on the left hand side. The nave and aisles focus on three apses in the Eastern style, a larger central one and two much smaller ones at the ends of the main side aisles.
The fabric is in brick, and it is worth while going round the back of the church to see the three windowless naked brick apses.
Over the near end of the main left hand side aisle is the stumpy square 12th century campanile, with two arched sound-holes on each side and a tiled pyramidal cap. Again unusually, it is butted against by another, more substantial rectangular tower of almost the same height.
The monastery is to the right of the church. The present buildings occupy four sides of a square courtyard which looks like an original monastic cloister, but a study of old maps show that in the 18th century only the north range was then extant. The other wings are modern.
It is thought that the Benedictine monastery was to the left of the church instead, where there is a range of ancillary rooms.
The approach to the church is via a flight of stairs leading to an arched gateway which has its barrel-vaulted portal flanked by a surviving marble Ionic column, described as marmo porino. Its companion has been lost (its capital remains embedded in the wall), and the staircase is a modern innovation caused by the lowering of the street level for the suburban development. The inner gate of this gateway has a tympanum with a fresco depicting St Sabas and St Andrew. This fresco was recently well restored.
The original church façade is preserved, but is hidden by a 15th century portico substantially altered in the 18th century. This original external narthex was added in the 1463 restoration, which used six ancient columns (four of giallo antico and two of Imperial porphyry) with Ionic capitals supporting an enclosed upper storey with a loggia on top. The porphyry columns had lion stylophores (they stood on figurines of lions).
Pope Pius VII pillaged these six columns, allegedly for the Vatican library, and the 18th century rebuilding that this act of vandalism entailed resulted in five square brick pilasters with chamfered corners, supporting the upper storey which now has five widely-spaced small rectangular windows. The windows are more modern, replacing the original rectangular ones the frames of which have been left visible in places.
Over the entrance portals is the 15th century arcaded upper loggia, with twelve stumpy columns having derivative Ionic capitals with tiny volutes. The arches of this loggia had been bricked up in the 18th century "restoration", but were unblocked in 1909. The roofline is immediately above, and over this can just be seen the tip of the gable of the central nave roof.
The narthex contains a very fine ancient Roman carved sarcophagus, with figurines depicting a wedding and strigillate decoration. Also on the walls are ancient sculptural fragments, including some from other sarcophagi, and bits of epigraphy.
These are common enough, but much rarer are those items that look as if they might have come from the original Byzantine monastery, especially the knight and falcon on the left hand side which is 8th century. The relief of a man with a stick above the sarcophagus is possibly older, 7th century. There is also a little marble pillar which might have been the central mullion of a double window or part of a soundhole arcade familiar in Romanesque campanile.
Much of the fabric of the actual church frontage within the narthex is actually a precious survival of the original late 4th century aula which was converted to serve as the first monastic church. It survives to a height of about ten metres. There used to be three entrance doorways within a triple arcade, and the two blocked up arched side entrances can be made out. If you look carefully at the main entrance, you can see traces of the third arch to either side. Above there used to be three rectangular windows, the central one only surviving.
The main entrance door has a molded doorcase including a strip of beautiful Cosmatesque mosaic decoration, with an inscription dating it to 1205 and signed by Magister Jacopo who was the father of the famous Cosmo. It reads: + Ad honorem Domini nostri IHV XPI, Anno VII pontificatus Domini Innocenti III PP, hoc opus Domino Iohanne abbate iubente factum est, per manus Magistri Iacobi.
In this, IHV XPI is actually Greek, and is an abbreviation for Jesus Christ.
Over the lintel is a damaged fresco showing Our Lady between two saints (the right hand one is St Sabas, the left hand one is St Andrew).
Apparently more ancient remains from the excavations under the church are kept in an antica or small museum in the left hand side range. These include several sarcophagi found under the right aisle.
The main interior walls are rendered in a sandy colour, and the open roof is in timber with trusses. There seems never to have been a ceiling. The aisle arcades rest on columns salvaged from ancient buildings (spolia), most with Ionic capitals. The central nave walls above the arcades have eight windows.
Part of the nave floor is original Cosmatesque perhaps dating from 1205, with five great discs (four of porphyry, one of grey granite) forming a quincunx, and intricate geometric patterning including elements of porphyry, yellow giallo antico and green serpentine. This flooring continues into the little entrance porch, where there is a rectangular slab of grey granite. This fails to impress nowadays, but to the Romans it was extremely high-status because it came from a quarry called Mons Claudianus in the Eastern Desert of Egypt (so did the porphyry, from Mons Porphyrites).
The floor was restored in 1907, when tomb slabs were removed and replaced with modern work matching the old.
The counterfaçade incorporates much late 4th century fabric from the original aula. The engaged piers at the beginnings of the arcades are actually the corners of the original edifice.
The fourteen nave arcade columns are very mixed, and are of dfferent lengths. Certain are cracked, and so have metal jackets.
Three of the columns are of pink granite from Aswan in Egypt, three are marmor imezio which is from Mount Hymettus near Athens, three are grey bigio antico marble from Algeria, three are grey granite from Egypt, one is pink marmor chium from Chios in Greece, and one is cipollino marble from Euboea in Greece. The ancient Romans sourced their decorative stonework from all over.
The near and far columns in the left hand arcade have capitals that are not Ionic; one is Corinthian, and the other Composite.
The sanctuary occupies the last bay of the nave, and has an external apse. It is raised, and had a semi-circular crypt below it which was joined onto the void under the nave when the archaeologists dug it out.
Above the arch of the apse, tucked into the roof gable, is a painting of the Annunciation executed in 1463 for Cardinal Piccolomini by Antoniazzo Romano.
The painting in the central apse conch was made for the Jubilee of 1575, and is possibly a reproduction of a lost 8th century mosaic. It depicts Christ Triumphant, flanked by SS Andrew and Sabas again. Below is the Lamb of God, flanked by twelve sheep representing the Apostles.
The apse wall has two registers of frescoes. This work is older, of the 14th century, although much touched-up. The upper register has the Madonna and Child flanked by the apostles, and the lower one has a fresco of the Crucifixion flanked by saints.
The baldacchino, restored in the early 20th century, has an open square cornice supported by four Corinthian columns. Two of these are in black granite, and two in black and white marble. The latter have capitals made of serpentine marble, a very unusual feature. On the cornice, little Ionic columns support an octagonal conical canopy with a little lantern aedicule having its own cupola.
A relic of St Sabas is preserved under the altar, which you can examine through a circular oculus. It looks like an arm bone. The rest of him is now back in his monastery of Mar Saba in the Holy Land.
In the apse behind the altar is an episcopal throne on two carved lions, with a Cosmatesque roundel for its back. This has very fine mosaic inlay, original although restored.
The lectern is formed from what is thought to be a carved marble lintel or architrave from the original 7th century monastic oratory. This used to be in the loggia. The Paschal candlestick is a twisted marble column without a capital.
Right hand aisleEdit
The outer wall of the right-hand aisle used to have small windows, which are blocked up.
A further piece Cosmatesque work, by Pietro Vassalletto, can be seen attached to the wall in the right-hand aisle. This came from a former schola cantorum, such as the one surviving at San Clemente, and is thought to have been the frontal. What survives are two solid marble plutei (screen slabs) with two sets of eight rectangular panels, four of porphry and four of green serpentine, and four twisted columns. There is an inscription: Magister Bassallectus me fecit, qui sit benedictu[s], with a little face having black stones for eyes.
The chapel at the end of this aisle is dedicated to Our Lady, and is also the baptistry. The apse contains a modern polychrome statue of the Madonna and Child, of no artistic interest. The tulip-bowl font has a little bronze sculpture of the Baptism of Christ on its cover, very like that at Santa Prisca nearby. The baptismal candlestick is a twisted stone column.
Left hand aisleEdit
The chapel at the end of the left hand aisle is dedicated to the Sacred Heart, and is also the Blessed Sacrament chapel. It has a modern statue.
There is a grating in the floor here, which looks down into an excavated 8th century side chapel belonging to the original monastic church (which the archaeologists called the "oratory").
The outer left-hand aisle is called, in Italian, the quarta navata. In English, a church is described as having a nave with side aisles, but in Italian it has tre navate. Hence, this is the fourth nave.
The architectural historical interpretation of this part of the church is that it was originally an 11th century portico linking the church to the Benedictine monastery (which at the start of the Middle Ages seems to have been on the left side of the church). The far side of the portico was walled up in the 13th century, and painted with frescoes.
The "fourth nave" has three bays, and an arcade supported by a pair of ribbed white marble columns with imposts instead of capitals.
The three damaged frescoes depict: The Madonna and Child with SS Andrew and Sabas, St Gregory the Great with St Benedict and a Bishop Saint, and St Nicholas Giving a Dowry to Three Poor Girls. These are now dated to 1296, and are considered to be the work of Jacopo Torriti who is known as the Maestro di San Saba.
The scene from the life of St Nicholas is especially interesting, since it has a depiction of three girls in bed. The story is that they were too poor to marry and stayed in bed because they had no clothes, until the saint provided a bag of gold as a dowry. Those gold coins are the original source of the traditional pawnbroker's sign.
The campanile occupies the end of the left hand aisle by the entrance, where the first storey has a very narrow doorway with a carved mediaeval doorframe. Remains of a window belonging to the late 4th century aula can be made out above it.
The main way to this chamber is via the second storey loggia over the entrance, but there is no public access. It contains a further fresco cycle by Torriti, aparently a pictorial calendar. Five tondi depict allegories of the months August to December, one depicts a king on his throne and two depict angels. Below the work is painted hanging drapery like that under the girls in bed in the "fourth nave".
In the sacristy and the corridor leading to it are several fresco fragments. Most of these were transferred here after from the 7th century oratory after it was excavated, and are of the highest interest. There are fragments from two separate decoratives schemes, one 7th century and the other, 10th century.
The oldest fragments date from between the foundation of the monastery in 645, and the reign of Pope John VII (705-7), and are Byzantine in style. A procession of saints above a painted hanging curtain was originally discernible, with seven heads recovered which are identified as SS Sebastian, Lawrence, Stephen, Peter of Alexandria, two priests and a bishop. In the same decorative scheme were a probable total of twenty-four panels depicting New Testament and allied apocryphal scenes. Those tentatively identified are: SS Joachim and Anne in the Temple, The Wedding of Our Lady, The Presentation of Our Lady, The Baptism of Christ, The Miraculous Catch of Fish, The Healing of the Paralytic, The Calming of the Storm, Peter Walks on the Water, The Transfiguration and The Entry into Jerusalem.
Also found was a Benedictine fresco cycle of the 9th to 10th century, depicting a curtain above which were a procession of apostles and saints, including monastic figures, done on a large scale. The building of the present church destroyed the upper walls of the oratory, and only the feet of these could be seen. However, there were labels: Sabas, Benedict, Lawrence, Peter, Gregorius. One fragment of this scheme shows a group of monks in black hoods, and (most interestingly) a single monk in tunic and scapular identified as Martinus monachus magister. He is depicted holding what looks like a brush, and is thought to have been the artist of the work.
One fresco here which did not come from underground is a Dormition of Our Lady, which is early 14th century and is ascribed to Pietro Cavallini. This used to be in a lunette in the left hand exterior wall of the church, before being brought indoors to preserve it.
The crypt now comprises the original semi-circular crypt under the sanctuary, and the void dug out under the nave by the archaeologists in order to uncover the remains of the original 7th century monastic oratory. By dubious tradition, this was originally the house of St Silvia -as mentioned, it was actually a late 4th century aula belonging to a large private house.
The original entrances to the old crypt were staircases by the sanctuary steps, creating a confessio through which pilgrims could pass. The crypt was revetted with marble, and had frescoes only small traces of which remain. Also, an inscription of the 9th or 10th century was found here mentioning a pope called Gregory, an abbot called Eugenius and the so-called Cella Muroniana which was a small hermit's apartment above the gate of Porta San Paolo.
The excavated void of the oratory is now accessed from the portico, to the left hand side. On the wall by the oratory entrance have been fixed tiles used as tomb markers, with epigraphs in red; one reads Ioannes episcopus. Also here is a pair of column bases thought to have flanked the original oratory entrance. The lower courses of the side walls of the oratory survive complete, as does the layout of a small side chapel to the left which had a tiny apse.
The present sotterraneo contains modern brick pillars supporting the floor of the church above. It measures 13.5 by 10 metres, and is 1.9 metres high. It shows evidence of reconstruction in the 8th century, when the floor was raised by 65 cm to cover burials and then paved with marble slabs. Other burials are in the walls, and epigraphs can be made out on the closures: Eugenius praepositus Monasteri Sancti Ermetis and Petrus episcopus ecclesiae Nicopolitanae.
The burial arrangements extended under what is now the right hand aisle of the church, outside the right hand wall of the oratory. They included re-used ancient sarcophagi (now removed), and also odd loculi or catacomb slots. Catacomb burials were usually in transverse slots, but these were cut longitudinally at about two metres long and three quarters of a metre wide.
Some small parts of the original frescoes can be seen, but the most interesting bits were rescued and taken to the sacristy, as mentioned.
The church is open (tourist website 060608, July 2018):
Weekdays 8:00 to 12:00, 16:00 to 19:10.
Sundays 9:30 to 13:00, 16:00 to 19:30.
The crypt is not open to the public, and unfortunately there seem to be no regular guided tours advertised for it.
Apparently, sometimes the main entrance of the church is not unlocked when the church is in use, so it is worth checking a side entrance on the Piazza Bernini.
Bus number 175 from Termini to Piramide passes the church; there is also the 715 from Circo Massimo which runs on a slightly different route but has the same stop here.
Mass is celebrated (parish website, July 2018):
Weekdays 9:00 (not July or August), 18:30;
Sundays 10:30, 12:00 (not July or August), 18:30.
Please note that only those hearing Mass are welcome in the church during the celebration of it.
The feast-day of St Sabas is 5 December.
- Parish website
- "De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -exterior
- "De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -interior
- Gallery on Gliscritti including photos of crypt