The Basilica of St. Paul Outside The Walls
When it was completed in the 5th century, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls was the largest and most impressive of the Papal Basilicas in the Rome (Which also included, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, and the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran). Unfortunately, it didn’t stay that way. Sackings and earthquakes over the course of some 1500 years weakened the structure and a terrible fire in 1823 reduced it to a smoking pile of rubble. This gives it the somewhat dubious distinction of being, almost undoubtedly, the youngest church that most tourists in Rome ever visit. The current church is just over a century old, but make no mistake: it’s still awe-inspiring. It includes major relics, a stunning Byzantine door made in Constantinople, a gothic baldachin by Arnolfo di Cambio, an immense paschal candle stand from the original church, and a collection of old and new mosaics.
Visiting St. Paul Outside the Walls: What to See
The Remains of St. Paul
San Paulo or St. Paul was born a Roman, though he traveled widely during his lifetime. As the co-patron saint of Roman, his proselytizing is generally credited as one of the driving factors behind the early spread of Christianity. When he was martyred by decapitation in Rome, his remains were supposedly buried in a field and marked with a small shrine. The shrine was replaced by a church in the 4th century and that church grew progressively larger over the next few hundred years. What distinguishes the relics of St. Paul from many of the other relics in Rome is that forensic analysis actually supports the theory that the remains belong to Paul. Such scientific validation (by a 2009 study) is rare and adds an archeological element to the spiritual veneration of paul’s remains.
The Original Front Doors
The most impressive doors in San Paolo Fuori le Mura are not the main doors but a set of bronze doors that sit just behind the Porta Santa, or holy door. They were cast in the 11th century by artists in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) and feature 54 exquisitely-crafted panels inlaid with silver. They were the main doors of the original church and are one of the few pieces from it that remain in good knick today.
The Paschal Candlestick and Gothic Baldachin
“Candlestick” is a bit of a misnomer in this case considering the “stick” is closer in size to the trunk of a small tree. Towering nearly 20 feet above the ground, it was carved with scenes of Christ’s passion by Nicolo di Angelo and Pietro Vassalletto. Around the base the Whore of Babylon – one of those delightful, Christian symbols of the Antichrist – rides a giant monster; a depiction that has thrilled both the pious and non-believers for centuries.
Featuring less doom but a pleasing dash of gothic gloom, Arnolfo di Cambio carved a wood baldachin for the church. It’s one of the few examples of highly celebrated gothic art in Rome and also the first baldachin to be decorated with sculptures of people.
When the church burned down in 1823, Pope Leo XII sent out a global call for donations to rebuild. Technically, he was only speaking to his fellow Catholics but he received a few surprise donations that still stand out today. Tsar Nicholas I sent blocks of malachite and lapis lazuli that ended up in two altars in the transept. King Fuad I of Egypt gave columns and windows of alabaster. Also, Egypt’s vice-king, Mohamed Ali, sent columns. These donations and many other less famous ones made this Rome’s most wide-ranging and important building project in the 18th century.
Mosaics make up the main wall decorations in St. Paul Outside the Walls. The mosaic on the facade of Christ and the apostles is relatively new (19th century) but it was based on a mural that adorned the original church. Inside the church’s original triumphal arch – one of the other remaining pieces from the old church – is also dripping with heavily restored mosaics. But the most splendid example of mosaic art is the image of Christ surrounded by Peter, Paul, Andrew, and Luke located on the ceiling of the Apse. It was created in 1220 by Venetian artists (whose cultural connection to the art of the old Byzantine empire made them excellent mosaic-layers) and has been one of the church’s main draws ever since.
Finally, and somewhat curiously, the walls are lined with mosaic portraits of every single pope that has ever held the position – 263 in all. 16 spots are still blank, but according to Roman legend, the world will end when the final one is filled.
The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament
This lovely space, designed by Carlo Maderno, was the only chapel to survive the 1823 fire. It features a treasure trove of venerated objects, like a miraculous crucifix and a wooden statue of St. Paul. If you look closely at the statue you can see where religious pilgrims used to shave pieces off to take home as relics. Don’t get any ideas – trying anything of the sort today would get you into a lot of trouble. Finally, this is the chapel that in 1541, Ignatius Loyola took the oaths that officially established Jesuits as an order of Catholicism.
Tips for Visiting the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls
The Basilica is open every day from 7:00am to 6:30pm.
As a holy place, the Basilica requires visitors to dress appropriately. In practice, this means that both men and women should cover the tops of their legs and shoulders. If wearing shorts that end above the knee it’s acceptable to wrap a sweater or cardigan around your waist.
Entrance to the basilica is free, but if you want to visit the cloisters you need to pay €3.00.
The Best Time to Visit
Although quite popular among religious pilgrims, St. Paul Outside the Walls is not considered one of the main attractions in Rome for the non-religious. This means that there is never a line to enter and it isn’t crowded. Go whenever you want, especially if you would like to escape the madness that can descend on more popular sites during Rome’s infamously-crowded high season.
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