The sacred shapes of Santa Sabina

By Paul Elie, 17 July 2021
A view of the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome. Image: Agniulka/Wikimedia Commons


In Rome one day in July, with no appointments till after the midday pause, I set out from Trastevere and walked over a bridge to the Aventine Hill.

The Aventino, as any guidebook will tell you, is one of the pleasantest places in Rome — a verdant refuge from the stony city. At the top of the hill is a piazza, and the brass keyhole of the Knights of Malta, which offers a framed view of the dome of St. Peter’s. There are churches, villas, an orange grove, and a parapet overlooking the tile roofs, cupolas and satellite dishes of Rome.

The Basilica of Santa Sabina is set lengthwise along the crest of the hill, so as to face east. A simple doorway, human height, is cut into the high ornamental double doors. I go in.

It is empty. No people, no pews, just a mop in a pail on the tile floor — and, above and around, absurdly framing that mop and pail, a right rectangular prism: columns arched one to the next, windows set porthole-like into the rounded apse, and a panelled wood ceiling, like a giant, upside-down game board.

A laconic comment catches my eye:

“In front of the church is a small 15th-century portico. In the vestibule on the left side of the church, the far door has 18 wooden panels carved with scriptural scenes, a remarkable survival from the early 5th century; they include one of the oldest representations of the Crucifixion in existence. . . .”

The oldest crucifixion: How can it be that it isn’t a showpiece, marked with a tag in four languages and a coin-activated spotlight? How can I not have seen it before?

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Paul Elie is a senior fellow in Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and a regular contributor to The New Yorker. He is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Reinventing Bach.

With thanks to Notre Dame Magazine, the print magazine of the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana.


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