This post is for my Dad.
He read about the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls and asked me to take a look for him (and take as many pictures as I could without getting into trouble).
Saint Paul’s is one of the four major Papal basilicas in Rome along with the basilicas of St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Peter’s. It is the second largest, next to St. Peter’s.
In 2006 Vatican archaeologists uncovered a sarcophagus below the main altar of St. Paul’s, believed to be the tomb of Paul. The stone was inscribed Paulo Apostolo Mart, Latin for “to Paul Apostle Martyr.” In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI announced that Vatican scientists had conducted carbon-14 dating tests on the skeletal remains inside the sarcophagus and confirmed that the bones date from from the late 1st or early 2nd century A.D, supporting that the remains could belong to Paul.
I arrived at Saint Paul’s on a frigid December afternoon. The church that stood before me is the result of a 19th century reconstruction; a fire destroyed the Basilica and most of its artworks in 1823. With no long lines in sight (like you find at St. Peter’s), I walked a half circle around the building searching for signs of life before following a woman through an entrance at the left arm of the cross-shaped basilica. I later discovered the church has another, much grander entrance.
A mass was going on so I immediately turned right upon entering, heading away from the altar down one of the church’s five naves. I looked up and took note of the windows. I remembered reading that the windows appear to be stained glass, but are actually thinly cut slabs of alabaster stone.
I entered the center and largest nave and got my first glimpse of the church’s impressive mosaics. My eyes darted up and down, left and right as I tried to take in the artwork that seemingly covered every inch of the space.
I tilted my head back and stared at the stucco-decorated ceiling. I looked above the nave’s eighty columns and saw the mosaic portraits of each pope.
I noticed people entering and exiting through a door behind me. I joined them and headed outside to the Basilica’s Quadriportico (an open space surrounded by porticoes on all sides). Along the outside wall of the church facing the Quadriportico there are three commemorative doorways: to the right, the Pauline door (2008); to the left, the Holy door (2000); and in the center, the “Main door” (1931).
The Pauline door, decorated by Roman artist Guido Veroi, was constructed in 2008 for the bimillennium of the birth of Saint Paul and depicts four scenes from the life of Paul. I took in the scenes at eye level: one shows Paul, a former persecutor feared by the Christians, meeting Saint Peter and the apostles in Jerusalem; the second shows Saint Paul’s beheading; a soldier beheads him while an angel greets him holding the palm of victory.
The central, bronze door was designed by Antonio Maraini after the old door had been damaged in the fire of 1823. The old door, a gift from Pope Gregory VII, is now on the inside of the Holy Door. Across the newer door runs a silver cross that is decorated with vines as well as symbols of the Evangelists and Apostles. The reliefs on the door show scenes from the lives of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
The Holy Door, to the far right, is a work in bronze made by the sculptor Manfrini for the Holy Year 2000. It is only open during years of Jubilee, about every 25 years. Its opening is a ceremony performed by the Pope.
I turned around to face the courtyard. After shaking my surprise of seeing palm trees in Rome, my eyes settled on the statue of Saint Paul in the center of the Quadriportico.
I worked my way through the portico, the inside of which is just as elaborately decorated as the inside of the church. Miniature masterpieces revealed themselves one by one. I resisted taking pictures.
Now facing Saint Paul, I saw the Basilica’s fabulous facade, decorated by mosaics and striking with its gold background. (Whelp, I guess this is the main entrance, isn’t it?)
In Paul’s right hand is a sword and in his left a book.
I took a closer look at the facade: the lower section depicts Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel; the central section shows the mystical Lamb surrounded by four rivers symbolizing the four Gospels and by twelve lambs representing the twelve Apostles; in the upper section, Christ sits between Peter and Paul.
As the sun began to set, I headed back inside through the Pauline doors. Mass had ended, so I finally approached the Basilica’s main altar.
First I took a closer look at the mosaic on the triumphal arch located at the front of main nave. This arch is often referred to as the Arch of Galla Placidia, as the Empress Galla Placidia funded the mosaic. She is also believed to have built the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia which houses UNESCO-worthy mosaics in Ravenna.
I looked up to the right and noticed a spotlight highlighting the mosaic of the current Pope, Benedictus XVI, next to an empty frame waiting for the next pope.
I stepped into the main altar and stared up at the mosaic covering the apse. The original mosaic, work of Pietro Cavallini, was mostly lost in the 1823 fire. Christ sits with the Apostles Peter, Paul, Andrew and Luke.
I sat down on a pew and stared some more.
After resting awhile, I tore my gaze away from the apse and got up. I glanced to my left and then to my right, taking in both arms of the church’s transept.
I turned around and focused on the Ciborium, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio. It dates back to the end of the 13th century, having escaped the destruction of the 1823 fire.
I circled around the Ciborium and prepared to descend the steps that lead beneath it to the tomb of Saint Paul.
At the foot of the Ciborium, lies the Confessio. There is a bench for people to kneel and pray. Just in front of the bench, a piece of glass on the floor reveals the work of archeologists. Then, through the metal grating on the wall, one side of Saint Paul’s sarcophagus is visible. Above the tomb, a case holds a chain, which has been linked to the Roman imprisonment of Paul. Next to the tomb, sits a votive oil lamp, which has been kept burning by the Benedictine monks of the abbey since the 8th century.
As I lingered in the Confessio, I heard the sounds of another mass beginning. I waited for a man to finish praying before taking my photos. I ascended the stairs and walked back to the left arm of the transept. At this point I realized that there are a number of chapels located off of the main one, but my eyes were satiated; I call it a day.
I went back out into the cold, the same way I entered, this time into the dark with the sounds of Italian prayers ringing in my ears.
In a nutshell: When in Rome, there are plenty of things to do and sights to see. If you have the luxury to visit Rome more then once or for an extended period, if you like visiting churches, or just like staring at pretty things, put Saint Paul’s on your list. It is certainly a treat for the eyes and may even lift your spirit.
Dad, I wish you could have seen it in person.
Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls (Wikipedia)
St. Paul’s Tomb Unearthed in Rome (National Geographic, 2006)
Pope claims human remains belong to St Paul (The Guardian, 2009)
San Paolo fuori le Mura (Churches of Rome wiki)