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Santa Sabina & The Complicated Past

Often, examining an object found in an old church is a lot like playing "Where's Waldo?" in reverse. You have your "Waldo," the special artifact, right before you, but what crowd surrounded it (its context) is difficult to discover. There may even be doubt whether this Waldo is the actual, original Waldo you are trying to put back in the drawing. So many fascinating objects are in the Basilica of Santa Sabina that one could spend an afternoon just alighting your eyes on each one. You can walk around and congratulate your own success in time travel: "I'm opening the ancient wooden doors, seeing the same visual stories the first parishioners did!" "Here is the original basilica design of Late Antiquity!" "Here I am, gazing at the same columns and mosaics that early Christians did!" However, the despairing reply to your successful contact with the past is always, "Well...yes and no."

I've written before about how much ancient/medieval art is changed by its passage through time. As well, you can count on churches and other monumental buildings having had more than one "refresh" over the centuries. The paint fades and no one restores it; the mosaics become gap-toothed and covered because they're out of fashion; medieval church furniture gets removed or rearranged, or updated with severe alterations (like altars and choir stalls). In the 19th century, repairs or restorations may have caused more damage than salvation. The drive to reconstruct the original, a hyper-real creation in its original glory, might have involved more imagination and wishful thinking than faithful recreation from weathered stone. (I'm looking at you, Viollet-le-Duc!")

Viollet-le-duc did his restoration work with conviction that making the structure seem complete was more important than being completely committed to fidelity to the structure's original form. He took license. In fact, the French government gave him a license to take license. Here's his credo on restoration, via The Collector's summary:

“To restore a building is not to preserve it, to repair, or rebuild it; it is to reinstate it in a condition of completeness which could never have existed at any given time.” This quote explains his theory well. Viollet-le-Duc’s goal was to reach his ideal of what medieval architecture was, regardless of whether the building had ever looked that way.

This was very much the spirit of the age in restoration, and not just in France. The 19th century restoration artists wanted to recreate the past, only better. Better-suited to their own period's political, idealized vision of the past. So, we rarely know how much of the original past of the artifact is actually before us. Nineteenth century restorations were designed to stir the contemporary viewer, to make it easy for the viewer to imagine themself in a past, not realizing that it is a past staged anew for them.

Thus, the magical feeling I get walking amongst the artifacts is often withered a bit from the research I do later. At Santa Sabina, almost any "Waldo" you meet has suffered from dislocation, alteration, and even restoration.

For a first example, look below at this magnificent fountain, which looks as though it's been here forever. Its gravid mass makes it an unlikely candidate for moving around like an IKEA sofa, and even less likely to be an amalgam of disparate pieces. And, look! It has its own niche in the wall of the basilica's courtyard! Of course it originates in this space! But, the fountain is all of these unlikely things: The basin is from a Roman bath, somewhere around here. The sculpture, a fountain head, is at least a thousand years younger than the basin, and has moved around the Tiber and the Roman Forum and elsewhere in the last 400 years. The niche appears to have some paint traces of a medieval or later fresco, suggesting to me that some other religious sculpture was ensconced here before the fountain. The current arrangement has rested here a scant 90 years.

Fountain in the Courtyard, sculpted Oceanus by Bartolomeo Bassi, 1593, from Giacomo della Porta's design

Closeup of Oceanus

A quite reasonable response to all of these pesky, deflating facts may be: "WHO CARES?!" And I, with some reservations, concur. We are the ancients whom some future scholar may ponder, wondering what we dreamed as we walked along all this spolia. We, too, are a part of history, and our experiences of the art around us will be valid in our time, and enduringly. The changes and the new context of a piece are also history.

The art and its evolving existence are beautiful without my footnotes. I just happen to like footnotes. A lot. And I guess that when I'm digging around for more information about these places, I have the (illusory) satisfaction of thinking I'm closer to "the real deal" than the non-academic co-viewers. Both types of viewer will be of interest to future historians.

The biggest draw for modern people to Santa Sabina is its ancient (early 5th century) doors. I've heard them called the earliest public figural representation of the Crucifixion (outside a manuscript); I've heard the speculations that they may be more likely Byzantine doors, from the eastern half of the empire. I've also heard they were made for another space originally, and were cut down to adapt to this newer space. For every scholarly assertion, another scholar has volleyed back undermining doubt and a different theory. That's often how these academic studies go.

The Doors As You Enter

It's astonishing that these doors are still in place and in use. Not many 1500+ years-old artifacts are. They're flanked by marble pillars from some other Ancient Roman building. Their placement is sheltered by a portico, and they are perpetually in deep shadow, which partly explains their excellent condition. Nonetheless, they've been repaired and restored repeatedly over the centuries, and to what degree the doors are in their original condition, with their original program of holy scenes, is still in scholarly dispute.

It is very tricky to photograph these doors, given the darkness, the protective glass, and the height of the upper panels. One really needs scaffolding and a tripod, but that's not going to happen without a professional commission. So, in this post I've endeavored to give you what you really can't have if you go there to see them for yourself: clear, bright images of individual panels. Forgive me if some of these images are edited to within 5 pixels of their lives.

I'll present these with brief descriptions, and hazard a few guesses about the overall theme of them at the end. Identity of the subject of a couple of the panels is still debatable.

Why are these panels so special? Because they are among the earliest examples of early (Western) Christian art, especially in wood carving. The iconography for public Christian art was not as set as it becomes by the late Byzantine and Romanesque periods. There is still some room for innovation, and imagination. Most likely, the carvers were shown examples of the subjects from manuscript pages.

Moses receives his calling

The first large panel depicts Moses being called by God to be a leader of his people out of slavery and into the promised land. The compression of the story into one composite image is much like the story illustration in early manuscripts. The story of Moses' calling is read from bottom to top, as is fitting for the elevation of status happening in the scene. Below, he is tending his sheep; in the middle he sees God in the burning bush and is ordered to remove his sandals while on holy ground; at the top, Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments from the hand of God, and he holds out the folds of his robe to receive something so precious that it mayn't be touched. I really love the way the carver decided to form the burning bush--he uses long striations to create branches of shrubbery, and then transitions the striations into a single, imposing flame.

Consecration of an early saint (?)

This one's subject has not been settled. I'm going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that this is the investiture of a saint, with his followers looking on, making affirming gestures. Going farther out on this limb, I propose that the man next to the angel is Peter of Illyria, who oversaw the building of Santa Sabina. The front door to the church originally had an inscription over it which credits Peter with the foundation (difficult to date, though). These figures are different from those of Moses and Aaron in the preceding panel in that they appear to be wearing togas, which were the traditional garb of Roman senators. The figures are portrayed in a more frontal style, and they are shown outside. The top-section of the panel is a religious building, with the man being accepted by the angel being shown as inside the church (note the curtains which align with the entry pillars). The man's hands are out-stretched in prayer, which may be a signal that he is preaching to the other men, with the guidance of the angel. Perhaps the building is meant to be Santa Sabina itself.

Moses leading his people out of Egypt

By now, reading from bottom to top in each panel makes the visual narrative easier to follow. Moses and Aaron turn their staffs into serpents before the Pharaoh, but in the middle section is where you see the Pharaoh (looking very much like a dashing Roman general) drowning in the Red Sea with the horses of his quadriga and a token foot-soldier. At the top, the Hebrews (one, in gratitude, carrying a lamb for sacrifice) are safely on the far shore, received by an angel. Note on the upper-right the hand of God and the burning pillar which guided the Hebrews in their trek.

The Assumption of Elijah

In this panel, Elijah rises to heaven, while Elisha cries after him, grabbing down his cloak. This scene is not quite divided into three, but it does appear to tell three scenes from the story. The dominant is Elisha reaching for Elijah's cloak, On the lower-right he breaks down in mourning. In the lower-left, he lays out the cloak on the water, and it allows him to walk over the water to the other bank of the River Jordan. The cloak is shown here transformed into a bridge, to make the point of the crossing. Not to be missed here is the little lizard on the rocks (left-middle), and the tiny horses, pulling their huge Elijah up to heaven. The pulling up of Elijah by the angel and the pulling down of him by Elisha make it seem there is a tug-of-war over the prophet, whether heaven or Earth shall have him.

The Risen Christ Appearing to His Disciples

The smaller panels are less ambitious than the large ones. Here, Christ appears to his Disciples after his resurrection. He seems to be exhorting them in an imperious way. I love the care with which the carver rendered the Chi-Rho as a halo behind his head, with only the upper-parts of the letters visible to the viewer. The brick wall in the background serves as an easy-to-carve horror vacui for the scene.

Christ having Risen, meets Mary and Mary Magdalene

The trees fill up what might otherwise be empty space in this scene, but, they may also represent a separation between Christ and the women (a nod to Noli Me Tangere). We don't see a barrier between Christ and his disciples in the previous panel.

Peter's Betrayal

There aren't many occasions for mirth in the panels on the doors of Santa Sabina, but this may be one instance. Peter is caught between two accusers here--Jesus telling Peter that he will deny him three times before the cock crows, and the cock himself, hovering over him attesting to Peter's failure.

Sacrifice of Isaac

This story becomes one of the most frequent subjects in Christian art. The Hebrew story of the sacrifice of Isaac (center) by Abraham (far left) was thought to foretell the Christian story of the sacrifice of Jesus by his father. In Isaac's case, though, once it is certain that Abraham is really going to go through with killing his most treasured son, an angel (top) is sent to stay Abraham's hand, and provides a substitute sacrifice: a ram (bottom right) is found in a thicket. Most striking to me is Isaac's rather cynical gaze out of the frame to the viewer.

Miracles of Christ

Three of the miracles of Christ are shown here, perhaps in an ascending order. First, seven jars are shown, with Jesus, by way of magic rod, converting their contents from water to wine. Next, Jesus creates loaves and fishes for the masses, with leftovers, no less. Upper-most, Jesus resurrects Lazarus. The convention for showing this was Lazarus emerging from a Roman-style house-tomb. This scene was around its time also popular to show on the sarcophagi of wealthy Christians.

Miracles of Moses

Another assertion that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism. The miracles of Moses here are, I think, meant to be read from top to bottom: Moses appears before God, asking to help his starving people; Moses gestures at the empty plate on the table; the Hebrews receive manna; Moses produces water from the rock.


What's missing from this carving of the Crucifixion? Did you say "Crosses!"? If so, you are right. This is the most famous image from the door. It is thought to be the earliest public art depicting the Crucifixion. Christ and the two thieves extend their arms, reminiscent of crucifixion, but the gesture here (without crosses) looks identical to the then-custom of how to pray. A question of when we are in the story in this depiction is important: if it's while they're on the crosses, then at least one of them (the thief who does not convert) should be in agony. If this is meant to be a happy "after" image in heaven, why is the second thief there? The three-gabled building behind them might refer to mansions in heaven, but, again, the second thief (Gestas, on the left, Christ's right) shouldn't be there. And in heaven, the loin-cloths would be replaced with robes of glory. The thief on Christ's left (our right side), Dismas, should be alone with him in heaven. My guess: this was a time of choosing a standard set of representations of Christian figures, and the doors show that the orthodoxy isn't quite set. The second thief needs to be there to make the story recognizable as the Crucifixion.

Why only a suggestion of crosses? Because the point of the story was the end-game: resurrection and new life. This is the upper-left-most panel in the door, and could be read as the start of the door's narrative program. If so, this makes the ending of the story as present in the beginning--crucifixion has the seeds of redemption within it.

The Empty Tomb

Here, echoing the Lazarus empty tomb in the panel showing Christ's miracles, is the angel who shows the empty tomb of Jesus to Mary and Mary Magdalene. Notice the scale of the angel compared to the women. It's hard to see the tomb empty because he fills the space almost completely.

The Gifts of the Magi

This panel is rather straight-forward, although instead of being in the manger, Mary and infant Jesus seem to be on a throne. The Kings are identified not just by their stance, but also by their Eastern Empire clothes. Each wears a Phrygian bonnet, a short tunic, and leggings that are criss-crossed with patterns. Their gifts lack detail and differentiation.

Christ between Peter and Paul

To my modern sensibilities, this looks like a photo of the CEO and chief officers of a business, and it kind of is. Peter and Paul found the Christian Church, under the direction of Jesus, who is partitioned from them by stately palm trees. He blesses Peter with his right hand.

The Ascension of Christ

This panel is different from the others in both delightful and discouraging ways. In a style which foreshadows some of Rome's famous Baroque domes, all of the characters--disciples, angels, Christ--hover in a sea of clouds. The disciples gaze up adoringly, and three of the four seem ecstatic to me. Unusually expressive, given the style in the rest of the panels. Even Jesus is smiling as the angels pull him up to heaven. What's discouraging to me is that this panel is so markedly unlike the others that I think it is a later replacement for a damaged original. The expressions don't match the serious stiffness of the other figures in the panels. The horror vacui background is really unlike the others, which are either plain or bricks. The wood itself is lighter than the other panels. Perhaps that's some singular damage, possibly from a cleaning attempt which bleached the wood. In any case, the difference here calls into doubt the wholeness of the doors.

The Alpha and Omega

This panel has scholars scratching their heads. It doesn't completely match either the other panels nor the fledgling iconography of the 5th century. It may be a scene from the Apocalypse, with Christ in majesty, as the Alpha and Omega, surrounded by his tetramorph. Given that the New Testament canon wasn't yet finalized, I'm not sure whether in the 5th century the tetramorph was strongly associated with the four evangelists yet. This is just to say that the tetramorph could be simply announcing the Apocalypse, as written in Revelations. Below, we have three figures, maybe Peter, Mary, and Paul, holding a circular object with a pointy stick toward a great star, the Moon (left) and the Sun (with an interesting insert I don't understand, perhaps a comet?). This scene seems rather esoteric when compared to the other panels, and also seems different in style from most of the other panels.

This complex and abundant messaging of the doors addresses the viewer before they even set foot in the basilica. While the panels may have been reassembled in a different order during a long-ago restoration (or moving to this portal), I think that the overall message of the program is the foundational principles of early Christianity: that it is the fulfillment of Judaism (placing Old Testament scenes of miracles, redemption, and ascension alongside of those in the New Testament). That great faith requires a great sacrifice, which can ultimately be redeemed. While Christianity liberates the individual, there is a distinct hierarchy of leaders and followers.

Once you pass through these doors, as probably more clergy than laity would have, you enter an exalted and monumental space: where the style takes Roman conventions for legal proceedings, and reuses them for followers seeking divine justice. After the wooden entry comes the religious themes in marble, porphyry, mosaics, and spolia from pre-Christian buildings. The chancel screen has stone bas-relief carvings, much more abstract than the doors.

Looking at ancient artifacts and structures offers an imperfect view to any particular past. Everything (including we ourselves) has been battered and swept along by time. Nonetheless, we look at them as we do into a mirror: we inevitably see ourselves, and our own assumptions and needs of the past. Behind our image in the mirror, however, may still see in the background its intimations of where humanity has come from.

Santa Sabina Interior

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