Key to Umbria: Spoleto

St Sabinus or Savinus (7th or 30th December)

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St Sabinus before Venustianus

Probably from the predella of the St Sabinus Altarpiece (1342)

by Pietro Lorenzetti, originally in the Duomo, Siena

National Gallery, London

An entry in the Roman Martyrology under 30th December records: “At Spoleto, the birthday of the holy martyrs: Sabinus, bishop; Exuperantius and Marcellus, deacons; also of Venustian, governor, with his wife and sons, under the Emperor Maximian.  Marcellus and Exuperantius were first racked, then severely beaten with rods; afterwards, being mangled with iron hooks and burned in the sides, they terminated their martyrdom.  Not long after, Venustian was put to the sword with his wife and sons.  St Sabinus, after having his hands cut off, and being a long time confined in prison, was scourged to death.  The martyrdom of these saints is commemorated on the same day, although it occurred at different times”.

The legend of St Sabinus (which survives in a number of versions as BHL 7451-5) seems to have been compiled in the 5th or early 6th century.  He was recorded in at least three of the important 9th century Martyrologies:

  1. under 7th December, in the Martyrology of Raban (ca. 845); and

  2. under 30th December, in the  Martyrologies of Adon (858) and Usuard (ca. 875).

A copy of BHL 7452 is preserved under 7th December in the Leggendari del Duomo

The legend is set in the reign of the Emperor Maximian (286-305).  It relates that Venustianus, Governor of Tuscany arrested a bishop, St Sabinus at Assisi in 303 and ordered him to adore an idol.  When he dashed it to the ground, his hands were cut off and he was forced to watch as his deacons, SS Exuperanzius and Marcellus were tortured and killed. 

St Sabinus survived and soon after cured the blind son (or perhaps the nephew) of the widow Serena.  Venustianus also suffered from a sight disorder, so he sent for  St Sabinus.  When he and his family agreed to be baptised, he was cured.  The Emperor then sent another legate, Lucius to Spoleto, and he ordered the arrest of SS Sabinus and Venustianus. 

All except one of the surviving versions of the legend say that they were martyred in Rome (usually at the Circus Maximus) on 18th May.  His followers collected his body and buried it on 7th December.  However BHL 7454h says that the Emperor Maximian and the senate, meeting in Rome, ordered the execution, which took place near Spoleto.  It adds that he was buried “miliario secundo a civitate Spolitana” (at the second milestone from Spoleto.  The burial is usually attributed to the widow  Serena and the place of burial was probably the Christian cemetery near the site of the present church of San Sabino

St Sabinus is venerated at Assisi as an early bishop of that city.  The earliest legends do indeed say he was a bishop and that he was arrested at Assisi: however, the earliest documents that describe him as Bishop of Assisi date to the 15th century and were written in Fisignano (see below). 

The importance of the cult of St Sabinus in the Lombard Duchy of Spoleto is clear from two references to it in the "History of the Lombards" by Paul the Deacon:

  1. In 591, when Ariulf, Duke of Spoleto went into " the church of the blessed martyr, the bishop Sabinus, in which his venerable body reposes" because he had been told that Christian soldiers "were wont to invoke [St Sabinus] to their aid as often as they went to war". He recognised an image of St Sabinus as a portrait of a man who had protected him during his battle against the Byzantines at Camerino in 598. (Book 4, chapter 16).  

  2. The Lombard King Aribert II (701 - 12) exiled Peter (Petros), a relative of the future King Liutprand to Spoleto.  As Peter prayed in "the church of the blessed martyr Sabinus", the saint appeared to him and told him that he would become Bishop of Pavia.  When Liutprand came to the throne in 712, Peter duly became Bishop of Pavia and built a church dedicated to St Sabinus on his own property in the diocese.

The cult of St Sabinus is widely dispersed, generally following the dispersal of his relics:

  1. In 598, Pope Gregory I asked Bishop Chrysanthus of Spoleto to send relics of the saint for use in an oratory in his honour that was being built in Fermo.  He also arranged for other relics to be sent to Ascoli and Rieti. 

  2. Duke Alberic I may have taken relics to Rome: a reliquary is recorded at what is now Santa Maria del Priorato on the Aventine Hill, Rome, a complex founded by his son, Alberic II in 939. 

  3. In 954, Conrad, son of Duke Berengar II of Ivrea was briefly Duke of Spoleto.  He fled back to Ivrea to escape an epidemic, taking with him relics of St Sabinus.  St Sabinus is still a patron saint of Ivrea.  His feast is celebrated there on 7th July, which is presumably the date of the translation. 

  4. In ca. 970, a representative of Bishop Theoderic I of Metz acquired the relics of St Serena (see St Sabinus) from San Sabino, along with other relics that were documented, perhaps incorrectly, as those of St Gregory.  Theoderic took them back to Metz.  These remains and the supposed relics of St Sabinus himself turned up at the Premonstratensian Abbey of Windberg (near Regensburg) in the late 12th century.  This abbey is dedicated to the Virgin and SS Sabinus and Serena . 

  5. A sarcophagus (5th or 6th century) that is thought to have housed a relic of St Sabinus survives in the church of San Savino in Fusignano, a small town near Faenza and Ravenna.  It  is not known why or when this relic was taken to Fusignano.  Astorre II Manfredi, Duke of Imola and Faenza, transferred them to the cathedral of Faenza in 1448 and they are still venerated there.  Documents written at the time of the translation refer to St Sabinus as having been the Bishop of Assisi and to the relic in question as an arm. 

  6. The cathedral of Siena first claimed the body of St Sabinus in 1215.