|English name:||St Sabas|
|Clergy:||Society of Jesus|
|Built:||645, rebuilt several times|
|Address:||20 Piazza Bernini|
San Saba is an ancient minor basilica and parish and titular church dedicated to St Sabas (439-532), one of the fathers of Eastern monasticism. It is 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. There is an English Wikipedia article. 
According to the tradition, on the site was a house that belonged to St Silvia, mother of Pope St Gregory the Great, who turned it into a chapel. 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 church. 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. Pope Lucius II granted the monastey in turn to the Cluniac reform Benedictine congregation in 1145, and they completely renovated it.
In the 15th century the church had the title of San Salvatore della Balbina, and was thoroughly restored or rebuilt by Cardinal Piccolomini (the future Pope Pius III) in 1463. It 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. So the pope handed the church over to the Canons of the Lateran in 1513, but they did not want it and it ended up belonging to the German-Hungarian College from 1573.
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 in 1901. 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.
ExteriorEditThe plan is typically basilical, with a nave and aisles. There is a short, unusual second side aisle on the left hand side. There are three apses in the Eastern style, a larger central one and two much smaller ones at the ends of the main side aisles. Over the near end of the main left hand side aisle is the stumpy square 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 original 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 extant. The other wings are modern.
The approach to the church is via a flight of stairs leading to an arched gateway with the tunnel portal flanked by a surviving limestone column. Its companion has been lost, 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 decayed fresco depicting the saint.
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 of Imperial porphyry with Ionic capitals supporting an enclosed upper storey with a loggia on top. Pope Pius VII pillaged these 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 this is the 15th century arched 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 narthex contains a very fine ancient Roman carved sarcophagus, with figurines depicting a wedding and strigillate decoration. Also on the walls are sculptural fragments, including some from other sarcophagi, and bits of epigraphy. Some of the former look as if they may have come from the original Byzantine monastery, especially the knight and falcon on the left hand side. The main entrance door has beautiful Cosmatesque mosaic decoration with an inscription dating it to 1205 and signed by Magister Jacopo who was the father of the famous Cosmo.
The main interior walls are rendered in a sandy colour, and the open roof is in timber with trusses. The aisle arcades include columns salvaged from ancient buildings with Ionic capitals. Part of the nave floor is original Cosmatesque from the late 13th century, with five great discs of coloured marble. Further remains of Cosmatesque work by Pietro Vassalletto can be seen in the right-hand aisle, and these are thought to come from a former schola cantorum such as the one surviving at San Clemente.
The sanctuary is raised, and has a crypt below it. A baldacchino with antique black marble columns and a hexagonal canopy stands over the altar. A relic of St Sabas is preserved here. The crypt is constructed in the remains of the original monastic oratory, by dubious tradition the house of St Silvia.
The painting in the central apse was made for the Jubilee of 1575, and is a reproduction of an 8th century mosaic. The painting of the Crucifixion below the main apse painting is older, of the 14th century. In the apse is an episcopal throne with a Cosmatesque roundel. Above the arch of the apse, tucked into the roof gable, is a painting of the Annunciation executed in 1463 for Cardinal Piccolomini.
The outer left-hand aisle may originally have been a portico. It has paintings from the late 11th or early 12th century, depicting the Madonna and Saints with Our Lady, St Andrew, St Nicholas and St Sabas, and the Healing of the Lame from the 9th or 10th century. The latter was originally in the earlier monastic oratory, and the former were uncovered in the 1909 restoration. The scenes from the life of St Nicholas are especially interesting, and include 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. It is dark here, but if you can find the light switch you can turn on some light. Do remember to turn it back off afterwards.
In the corridor leading to the sacristy, there are remains of 7th or 8th century frescoes depicting the monks of the Eastern community established here in the 7th century. These were transferred here after the oratory was excavated.
You may ask the sacristan to let you visit the crypt, in the old monastic oratory.
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.
The feast-day of St Sabas is December 5th.
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.