The ancient church of Santa Sabina was built by Peter of Illyria, a bishop from Dalmatia, during the reign of Pope Celestine I (r. 422-32). The church stands on the site of the Titulus Sabinae, the house-church of a Roman matron by the name of Sabina, who is believed to have been martyred during the reign of the emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138).
In the early 13th century, Santa Sabina was granted by Pope Honorius III (r. 1216-27) to the newly-created Order of Preachers (Ordo Praedicatorum), also known as the Dominicans, to which it still belongs.
The wooden entrance door is probably the most famous aspect of Santa Sabina. The 18 cypress-wood panels date back to between 420 and 450.
The church of Santa Sabina was modelled on the basilicas of Ravenna and its nave was once adorned with mosaics. Sadly, only the mosaic on the counter-facade survives. The long inscription, which praises Bishop Peter of Illyria, and refers to Pope Celestine I, is flanked by two female figures, personifications of converted Jews (ex-circumcisione) and Gentiles (ex-gentibus).
The wide nave is separated from the aisles by twenty-four magnificent Corinthian columns, which have been recycled from a nearby building from the second century CE. The arcades are decorated with curious motifs in porphyry and green serpentine. No satisfactory explanation of the meaning of the motifs has been forthcoming.
The lost mosaic in the apse was replaced by a fresco (1560), the work of the Mannerist painter Taddeo Zuccari (1529-66) and purportedly based on drawings of the original mosaic. The fresco, which depicts Christ in Glory, was repainted by the Roman Neoclassical painter Vincenzo Camuccini (1771-1844) in 1836.
The marble floor, which was relaid in the 20th century, has several medieval tomb-slabs. The most important is in the middle of the nave and depicts a Master General of the Dominicans, thought to be Muñoz de Zamora, who died in 1300. Very unusually, the effigy is in mosaic, the only example of its kind left in Rome.
In the right aisle is the fine 15th century funerary monument to Cardinal Ausiàs Despuig. The inscription declares: VT MORIENS VIVERET VIXIT VT MORITVRVS. (To live after death, he lived as one who was going to die.)