San Saba Basilica Rome

The Basilica of San Saba is the main church and central point of the rione of the same name just north of the center of Rome. The earliest version of this church was constructed in the 8th century. The complex is considerably bigger than the entrance would suggest.

What to see

Monastery of Santa Saba Rome
From the back you can get a better impression of the size of the complex.

The Basilica of San Saba is an example of medieval Romanesque architecture. With three naves, each ending in an apse, its structure echoes the plan of early Christian churches. The naves are separated by 24 (reused) columns. A fourth nave on the left may originally have been a portico. It contains some 13th century frescoes.

The apse contains the episcopal chair, decorated with Cosmatesque mosaics, the ciborium, supported by four black and white marble columns, and frescoes dating back to 1575. In the center is a “Crucifixion” and above it an “Annunciation”.

The medieval bell tower used to be taller than it is now. The top part had to be removed when it was in danger of collapsing.

Entrance to the San Saba Complex
Entrance to the complex.

In 1205 the entrance and the Cosmatesque marble floor was added. An inscription claims that the floor decorations were done by Jacopo and commissioned by the abbot Giovanni in the 7th year of the Pontificate of Innocent III. Jacopo Cosma was a member of the family after whom this kind of floor decoration was named.

The entrance to the complex is preceded by steps leading up to a prothyrum. The fresco above the entrance depicts the “Madonna between San Saba and Sant’Andrea”. From there a courtyard leads to the church itself.

A six pillar portico precedes the entrance to the church. The pillars are a replacement of the original 15th century ones, consisting of four Numidian marble columns and two central ones of red porphyry resting on lion statues. The portico contains archaeological finds. The most striking one of these is a sarcophagus depicting the dextrarum iunctio, two spouses shaking hands with their right hands. On the left you can see an 8th relief depicting a falconer on horseback.

An inscription to the right of the entrance claims that “from this house every day the pious mother brought a bowl of vegetables to the Clivo di Scauro“. The mother was the mother of Gregory the Great, who was then living in the Convent of Sant’Andrea. The silver bowl she carried her veggies in was later donated to charity by Pope Gregory.

The choir on the right was restored in 1943. In order to do this, fragments that had earlier been reused when reconstructing the nave, were again reused.

History

After the fall of the Roman empire, what is now the San Saba district remained virtually uninhabited. In the 7th century, hermit monks settled in the area. The monastery was founded in the 8th century, when a group of eastern monks from the monastery of St. Saba in Judea settled in the area. During the Middle Ages, this monastery developed into one of the most important ones in Rome.

The building was constructed on a Roman-era oratory dedicated to Santa Silvia, mother of Pope Gregory the Great.

In the crypt, relics of this oratory, including tombs of the monks, are preserved, together with other archaeological finds. The crypt is accessible via a set of stairs off the presbytery.

The church itself dates back to the 10th century. By then, the convent was run by the Benedictine order.

In 1145, Pope Lucius II gave the monastery to the monks of Cluny, who oversaw a Romanesque reconstruction of the complex. The bell tower also dates back to this period.

In the mid-15th century, the church was newly dedicated, to San Saba and Sant’Ansano. The present facade, the roof and the triumphal arch date back to this period.

In 1573, the monastery became the seat of the Germanic-Hungarian College, which was run by the Jesuit Order. In the 18th century, the order was suppressed.

From the early 1900s to the present, the Jesuits returned to lead the community that has since become a parish. The present architecture of the church is a result of a restoration between 1932 and 1943.

Curiosities

The church is dedicated to Saint Sabbas (439-532), a Palestinian saint who founded several monasteries around the Dead Sea. One of these, Mar Saba, is one of the oldest (almost) continuously inhabited monasteries in the world. During the time of the crusades the saint’s body was taken to Venice, not to be returned to Mar Saba until 1965.

Practical information

Address

The official address of the church is Piazza G. L. Bernini, 20 – 00153 Rome. The entrance, however, is at Via San Saba, 19.

Phone

Parish office: 06 64580140.

Opening times

The church is open from Monday to Friday from 10:00 till 12:00, and on Mondays and Thursdays from 16:00 till 18:00. Closed on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays.

During mass it is not possible to visit the church. On weekdays services are at 09:00 and 18:30, on Sundays and public holidays at 10:30,12:00 and 18:30. From June 30 until mid-September, there is no 12:00 Mass on Sundays and public holidays. From June 30 to August 31, the 9:00 weekday Mass is not celebrated.

Basilica di San Saba, Roma


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