I happen to enjoy experiencing ancient things. Santa Sabina, a 5th century basilica on the Aventine Hill in Rome might well be my favorite church of all time. It’s not often you get to see a building constructed between the years 422 and 432, only around 100 years after Constantine had legalized Christianity.
Just walking along the Via Santa Sabina, a street paralleling the Tiber, gives you the feeling of an ancient sacred space outside of Rome’s cacophonous center. It’s quiet, save for chattering birds. Adjacent to the Basilica is the Orange garden, an oasis of calm with a great view of the Capitoline Hill, which in antiquity hosted the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.
I “found” Santa Sabina when looking for its view spot, the platform in its adjoining orange garden. I ducked into the Basilica as the sun was beginning to fall, the steep angle driving light inside the basilica. Rome’s starlings were at the ready, a few early birds out swooping and diving.
I looked past the unique walled altar towards the apse, unlike later Romanesque churches, dark with invitation for the visitor to look inward, the light poured in, flickering in a glittering pool behind the altar.
Now, when I say “the light poured in” you’d expect that this pouring would be done through windows, with glass to prevent rain from entering.
That’s almost right. Except—the windows are not of glass but of crystalized gypsum.
What looks like glass is selenite, moon stone, a mineral made from crystalized gypsum rich with sufites, you can scratch it with a fingernail. Selenite flows brightly with light, where other churches were dark for greater introspection. There are no other examples of selenite windows in the world. — The Windows of Santa Sabina
That’s not all that’s unique. The carved wooden entrance door in the porch of the building (not the one you entered) is from the fifth century. You seldom see wood last this long. In the upper left panel, we see what might just be the first depiction of a crucifixion.
Oh, and by the way, you can actually buy Selenite on Amazon.com. You’ll see descriptions like “Cleansing Energy, Healing Crystals, and Radiation Protection”.
In any case if you turn around you’ll get a better view of the windows we’re talking about:
Now on to the aisles on each side of the nave.
The columns that separate the nave from the aisles are called spolia, they’re reused from an earlier pagan temple. Above them in the nave arcade are images of a chalice and bread plates fashioned from inlaid stone and repeating all the way down the nave.
There are other things that might grab your attention when you visit this ancient sacred place, but I must leave you free to explore on your own. The Aventine Hill is an afternoon adventure from wherever you’re staying in Rome. Don’t miss it.
And to add a little incentive, here’s a slice of the view of Rome taken with a moderate telephoto: