Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Talk to any liberal Catholic about Rome and you will find that they will often go into raptures about the Basilica of Santa Sabina, home to the Dominican order. What is often cited is the simple early Christian architecture inside, and indeed that is true as seen by the pic that i took one early Monday morning in October.

As you can see, unusually for a basilica of this age (constructed in the mid 5th cent), it does not have a ciborium over the Altar. When the changes were made in the 1960s I am sure that this was used as an example of the early Christianity that we were to aspire, particularly by the benedictine liturgists over the road in the San Anselmo college.

Although people might think that this is a beautifully preserved early Christian basilica, this is not so.

Pope Honorius III (1216-27) gave the church and part of his palace to St Dominic for his new order. At that time it was a parish church and so St Dominic in his wisdom put a dividing wall in the nave, with the parish to use the end near the front door, and reserving the sanctuary end for his community. In addition a cloister was added, and it was in this cloister that St Thomas Aquinas wrote part of the Summa Theologica.

In 1312 Henry of Luxembourg sequestered the property and threw the Dominicans out (Obviously he wanted it for the fine views - in Imperial times this was the equivalent of Hamilton, Bellevue Hill or Toorak in Australia). In renaissance times it was was further used as a Papal palace, and St Pius V retreated here during Carnivale time to avoid the noise and revelry, and to avoid seeing the licentious behaviour in the City below.

Domenico Fontana, architect to Pope Sixtus V, did an extreme makeover, to modernise it to the style of the time (late mannerism - early baroque). It probably looked something like San Giovanni e Paulo which I visited later in the morning (there was a wedding going on at the time)

In 1882 Santa Sabina was confiscated by the Italian Government, and opened as a museum. It was at this time that the archaeologist Professor Muñoz, restored it to its present state, using the best information available. Eventually the Church purchased it off Benito Mussolini (who would only sell at market price).
So the Vatican II generation saw this as an ideal template for the new liturgy, without taking into account that, like all older churches in Rome it had a very tortuous history, and what they are seeing is not an authentic early Christian Basilica but a reconstructed one based on a number of archaelogical assumptions.
Santa Sabina stands as an achitectural testament to the fascinating history of our church, but also as a metaphor for the archeological reconstruction of the liturgy that happened in the 1960s, based upon a number of assumptions which were later found to be incorrect.
The most startling aspect of the sanctuary of Santa Sabina is that the Altar is more of a rectangular shape and that the ciborium is missing. Modern freestanding Altars often look bare because they are totally devoid of architectural superstructures, which sets it off as the place; the mystical "tent" where God meets man.
Personally being more passionate about Baroque, I liked San Giovanno e Paulo. Here it is from outside, in the carpark, where you can see its original 11th century front facade, although the superstructure behind it is much older (ignore the 19th century dome to the right). Interestingly the front porch was commissioned by Pope Adrian IV, the only English Pope.

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