San Paolo fuori le Mura is a heavily restored 4th century Major basilica and papal basilica dedicated to St Paul and containing his shrine. The postal address is Via Ostiense 184, in the Ostiense quarter.
- 1 Status
- 2 History
- 3 Exterior
- 4 Doors
- 5 Interior
- 5.1 Nave
- 5.2 Triumphal arch
- 5.3 High altar and confessio
- 5.4 Paschal candlestick
- 5.5 Altar of the Conversion of St Paul
- 5.6 Chapel of St Stephen
- 5.7 Blessed Sacrament Chapel
- 5.8 Apse mosaic
- 5.9 Mosaics on the inside of the triumphal arch.
- 5.10 Chapel of St Lawrence
- 5.11 Chapel of St Benedict
- 5.12 Altar of Our Lady of the Assumption
- 5.13 Oratory of St Julian
- 5.14 Baptistry
- 6 Abbey
- 7 Ancient cemetery
- 8 Access
- 9 Liturgy
- 10 External links
The status of the basilica is complicated, and can confuse.
It is the third in dignity of the major basilicas of Rome, after San Giovanni in Laterano and St Peter's, and is the second largest church in Rome. It used to have the dignity of a patriarchal basilica, being assigned to the Patriarch of Alexandria, but this dignity has been abolished and should no longer be referred to.
The basilica and its attached monastery are part of Italy, but under the Lateran Treaty of 1929 the area is "extra-territorial". This means that the Vatican is entirely responsible for its administration.
However, in practice the basilica and monastery are separately administered. The latter is governed by its own abbot, but the former is staffed by Vatican employees and the abbot has no administrative jurisdiction here apart from liturgical and pastoral concerns. The CEO of the basilica is an "archpriest" (arciprete) who in June 2018 was Cardinal James Michael Harvey, and the abbot has the title of "Vicar for Pastoral Matters" (Vicario per la Pastorale).
Monk-guests from other Benedictine monasteries might appreciate a warning that the brethren have no free individual right of access to the basilica. This hardly matters when the basilica is open to the public or when the brethren are celebrating liturgically, but you cannot expect to remain on your own to pray in the basilica once the doors are locked.
St Paul's tomb
Contemporary documentary witnesses to the career of St Paul only occur in the New Testament. There, the Acts of the Apostles terminates by describing him as spending two years under house arrest at Rome after arriving there from Jerusalem in about the year 60 AD,
According to subsequent tradition, established less than a century later, St Paul was executed on the orders of the Emperor Nero about the 65 AD (or, at least, before 68 AD when the emperor killed himself). Modern scholars have speculated about what he did in the three missing years, but have absolutely no evidence to work on.
Where the apostle was executed is now unknown. Still later tradition places his death at the present abbey of Tre Fontane, but there are serious problems with this. The execution scene is described as featuring the apostle's head bouncing three times after his neck was severed, with three springs of water welling up where it had hit the ground. Much more worryingly, the detail is added that his body spurted milk instead of blood -this bizarre feature seems to link the tale to a Manichaean rather than a Christian source. More to the point, the distance from the city seems excessive in leading away a prisoner for execution.
Whatever, St Paul was buried in a cemetery at this site which is about two kilometres from the city walls by the road to Ostia. This was apparently established by a female proprietor called Lucina, and was named after her. She might have been one of St Paul's patrons while he was at Rome, and so was able to reserve a burial plot for him, or might have simply sold a plot to him personally or to his representatives.
A shrine, or cella memoriae, was apparently soon erected, and many early Christians came to venerate the "Apostle to the Gentiles".
The first church here was, according to the Liber Pontificalis, built by Emperor Constantine and consecrated on 18 November 324. It was a small edifice, built either over the actual tomb of St Paul or his shrine -which is unclear, but the former is more likely. This is because the church was awkwardly fitted in between two ancient roads, the Via Laurentina and the Via Ostiensis, the junction of which used to be just to the north. (The modern junction is to the south). Also, there are good indications that early Christians at Rome were very reluctant to move the entombed remains of venerated people (the major problem of SS Peter and Paul at San Sebastiano fuori le Mura notwithstanding).
This first edifice had two apses, one fitting into the present one and the other just under the present triumphal arch.
Building of present basilica
Between 384 and 386, Emperors Valentinian II , Theodosius I and Arcadius demolished the church and built a large basilica. The architect was one Cyriades. According to the inscription on the triumphal arch, it was consecrated in 390 by Siricius, and completed in 395 under Emperor Honorius. The Christian poet Prudentius described it as being roofed with gilded bronze tiles. Although heavily restored, not least after it was damaged by fire in the 19th century, the present basilica looks much the same as it did in the 4th century.
The focus of the basilica was the pre-existing tomb or shrine of St Paul in the first basilica, and the road junction was diverted to accommodate the larger building.
It was reported on December 7th 2006 that Giorgio Filippi, an archeologist and inscriptions expert at the Vatican Museums and working for the Vatican, had unearthed a marble sarcophagus dating from "at least 390" as he supervised work to excavate the ancient crypt beneath the church. The sarcophagus has Paolo Apostolo Martyr (Paul Apostle Martyr) written on it, and is very likely to contain the remains of Saint Paul.
In 2002 and 2003, Filippi had examined this sarcophagus after having removed pavement stones to access chambers below the basilica. Three vertical holes leading down to the lid were found, one of which is closed but thought to have lead directly into the sarcophagus. This was likely used to allow objects to come into contact with the remains of St. Paul in order to create secondary relics. These were popular in the late fourth century after Emperor Theodosius banned the trade of corporal relics. The New Testament states in Acts 19:11-12 "God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them."
Early Middle Ages
Pope St Leo the Great (440–461) restored the church after an earthquake, and it was he who, by tradition began the commissioning of series of papal portraits in the nave. About 50 years later, Pope St Symmachus (498–514) ordered the reconstruction of the apse which was unsafe, and also opened a hostel for pilgrims. Several more restorations and changes were later carried out, under Pope St Gregory the Great (590-604) who raised the floor of the transept; Pope Sergius I (687-701) who repaired the roof and the hostel; Pope Hadrian I (772-95) who restored the aisles and laid a new floor in the atrium, and Pope Leo III (796-816) who ordered the transept, roof and floors to be repaired again, and who also added the apse mosaic.
In the 7th century it was recorded that there were two monasteries attached to the church, one for monks and one for nuns. Pope Gregory II (715-31) re-founded the male monastery for Benedictine monks, who have been in residence ever since.
A strange legend associated with Pope Hadrian is that he restored a colonnaded walkway which ran from the Porta San Paolo to the basilica. This structure is extremely unlikely to have existed, since it would have needed thousands of stone columns for its construction. It is thought that the legend arose from the provision of a colonnaded atrium by the pope.
In 739 and 773 the Lombards plundered the church, and in 843 Muslim pirates sailed up the Tiber and thoroughly pillaged it. By tradition, they did not find the apostle's tomb in the process because Pope Sergius III, forewarned, had walled it up.
As a result of all this, in 883 a set of defensive walls and towers encircling the church were completed. This created a little walled town known as "Johannipolis" (in Italian Giovannipoli), or "City of John" after Pope John VIII. The defence works were tested in 1083–1084, when they withstood several attacks by Emperor Henry IV.
Meanwhile, in 937 the church was entrusted to the great reforming Benedictine abbey of Cluny in France, which re-founded the monastery here as a dependency. Initially things did not go well, and its most famous superior, Hildebrand, had to restore and embellish the church around 1070 before he became Pope Gregory VII. A campanile was built at the entrance end of the left hand outer aisle, and a magnificent bronze door from Constantinople was provided for the main entrance in 1070. Before this the remnants of the monastic community were allegedly living in squalor, and allowing sheep to shelter from the weather in the semi-derelict basilica.
High Middle Ages
In 1115 there was a serious fire, and Pope Innocent II had a wall with columns built along the major axis of the transept in order to support the unsafe roof. The transept was divided into two narrow aisles by this wall. During the reign of Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) the superb cloister was begun. Also in the 13th century the altar canopy was built, and a series of paintings on the main nave walls was executed by Pietro Cavallini. In 1325 the façade was provided with a mosaic.
During the "Babylonian Captivity " of the popes at Avignon in France, 1305-78, the abbey and basilica formed the most important functioning eccesiastical institution in Rome, and the abbot was effectively the Pope's deputy there. The official residence of the popes, the Lateran Palace, fell into ruin meanwhile.
During the Middle Ages the abbey was under the special patronage of the kings of England, and as a result its coat of arms contains the device of the "Order of the Garter", the highest chivalric dignity conferred by the English crown. This was founded in 1348 by King Edward III, and the garter concerned was a stocking support dropped by one of his female courtiers at an official function.
At the start of the 15th century, the basilica was again in bad repair. Major restorations started under Pope Boniface IX, when he allowed all donations to the church in return for indulgences to be used for repairs. Pope Martin V (1386-1481) continued the work, and in 1426 the work was intensified under the rector of the church, Gabriele Condulmer, later Pope Eugene IV.
Under Pope Martin the monastery was taken away from the control of the abbey of Cluny and entrusted to the reforming Benedictine congregation of St Justina, partly in order to remove unwanted French influence. In the process the monastery was made an abbey nullius, meaning that it was its own diocese with the abbot simultaneously a bishop. This congregation was later known as the Cassinese when the abbey of Montecassino joined it.
In 1620 a chapel for the Blessed Sacrament was designed by Carlo Maderno, and built just to the right of the apse.
In 1653 Francesco Borromini produced plans for a total restructuring of the church, at the request of Pope Innocent X . The basilica would have been given a Baroque makeover, with semi-circular pillared porticos at both ends. Due to a lack of funds, only the roof was renewed and this work was completed under Pope Clement X.
At the end of the Holy Year of 1700, the Tiber flooded the area and the basilica could not be visited by pilgrims for the Jubilee indulgence. Its functions for the Jubilee were transferred to Santa Maria in Trastevere. This was the most famous of the many floods that the basilica suffered owing to its position, just by a meander of the river.
The portico was rebuilt in 1724, in preparation for the Holy Year of 1725, by Antonio Canevari. The former one, recently built by Alessandro Specchi, had collapsed on 1 May 1724. The ancient narthex was demolished at this time, and columns from the early four-sided portico were removed.
At the same time, a series of other restorations were completed under Pope Benedict XIV. A chapel dedicated to the Crucifix was built to the left of the apse, the apse mosaic was restored (bits of the original work were removed, and are on display near the sacristy) and the series of papal portraits were brought up to date. The idea of adding a new painting for every new pope was then established.
Appearance of the old basilica in c1800
Throughout the mediaeval and post-mediaval period, the basilica and monastery stood alone in open countryside. A serious problem that emerged as a result was malaria as an endemic disease, which made a pilgrimage here somewhat risky and persuaded the monastic community to move elsewhere in the summer months.
Anybody visiting the basilica at the start of the 19th century would have been confronted by a Baroque-style façade, with an external loggia. This had seven entrance arches, the central one being flanked by piers with single Corinthian columns but the other piers having doubled columns. Above the loggia the frontage of the nave had three large arched windows over three smaller ones, and above the windows the frontage was coved before ending in a triangular pediment. This coving was so that the medieval mosaics on this frontage did not seem foreshortened to a viewer in front of the church (see Santa Maria in Trastevere for a surviving example of this). The coving had a tondo of Christ in majesty supported by angels, with the symbols of the evangelists on either side. In between the large windows were figures of Our Lady and SS Paul, Peter and John the Baptist.
The campanile on the left hand side, at the end of the outermost aisle, had three storeys of increasing height. The first one was Romanesque, with paired arches, but the other two had a high Gothic arch on each face and dated from the medieval rebuilding
Inside the nave columns were of marble, with Corinthian capitals. By tradition they had been pillaged from the Roman Forum, especially the Basilica Aemilia. Those of the main arcade were of Parian marble from Greece, and were ribbed. The four nearest the entrance had been walled in so as to buttress the façade. Other columns were of violet breccia and Pentelic marble. Two enormous Ionic columns of cipollino marble (white with pale green streaks), from the island of Euboea in Greece, supported the triumphal arch.
Above the main nave arcades, below the clerestory windows, was the cycle of frescoes by Cavallini (twenty-two in all) featured scenes from the Old Testament on the left hand side and from the Acts of the Apostles on the right. The roof was open, having enormous transverse beams supporting a truly massive composite beam which stretched the length of the nave.
There were, however, coved ceilings for the transept. As mentioned, this was divided by a screen wall with a large arch behind the tomb, and four smaller ones on each side supported by three columns of cipollino and granite. To the left of the apse was a Baroque chapel with an apse, and to the right another one without. Behind the apse was a third, peculiar chapel on a trapezoidal plan. The present Gregorian entrance portico did not exist, and the ends of the transept were occupied by two altars each.
The medieval altar canopy had four columns of imperial porphyry, purple with speckled white inclusions. This fabulously rare stone, which can be found in other churches in Rome, came from the one source in the Eastern Desert of Egypt known as the Mons Porphyrites.
The floors were of Cosmatesque work, interspersed with many memorial inscriptions, and there were other memorials on the internal walls.
The fire of 1823
On the night between 15 and 16 July 1823, large parts of the basilica were damaged or destroyed by fire. It was probably started by a careless worker leaving a brazier burning while lead on the roof was being repaired. When the burning nave roof fell in, the temperature became so high that all the marble columns in the nave were calcined and the porphyry columns of the shrine exploded. It is said that Pope Pius VII, who was very ill and died on 20 August that year, was never told what had happened, after advice from his most trusted fellows such as the Secretary of State, Cardinal Consalvi.
During the fire, the western half of the left hand nave arcade collapsed. The other columns on this side, and all on the right hand side, were still standing and supporting the upper walls but surviving engravings show them to be very seriously damaged. The wall of the triumphal arch with its mosaic was standing, but the supporting columns were also compromised and collapse was expected. The arcades of the outer aisles were less seriously damaged, and the mediaeval campanile was intact as was the Baroque portico. Strangely, part of the roof of the left hand outermost aisle nearest the transept managed to survive.
Pope Leo XII was elected on 18 November 1823, and initiated a heated debate about how to restore the church. Giuseppe Valadier had been appointed architect at first, but his plans for radical changes were eventually rejected and he was removed from the project in November 1825. He had initially proposed that the transept would become the church, and that the nave would be left unroofed as an ancient monument. However, the pope decided to restore the basilica to its former glory, rather than replace it with a new church in a more modern style. As a result restoration work continued for almost a century, until 1930.
The first architect to lead the actual rebuilding was Pasquale Belli. Salvi, Paccagnini and Andrea Alippi were appointed as Belli's assistants. Work started in 1826, after a worldwide collection of funds had been taken. Belli demolished the triumphal arch after removing and storing the mosaic, and did the same to the portico and campanile. More controversially, he demolished the nave arcades and in the process destroyed the surviving frescoes by Cavallini. For this he has been condemned, but saving them would have meant a serious investment of time and money. Less forgivable was the ruthless clearing out of old memorials and inscriptions, including mediaeval ones. He also demolished the screen wall in the transept, and its end walls also. The triumphal arch was the first part of the church to be rebuilt, in 1829 using massive columns of Montórfano granite.
Pope Gregory XVI took a great interest in the rebuilding; he was elected in 1831 at the time when the first of the eighty columns in the nave was erected. In 1833 Luigi Poletti became the new chief architect. He was assisted by Pietro Bosio, Pietro Camporese the Younger and Virgino Vespigniani. A new portico was added to the north end of the transept, which was roofed and became the church for the time being after the high altar was re-consecrated on 5 October 1840 by Pope Gregory XVI. At that time, the nave was nowhere near completion, and so only the transept could be used. In 1845 two new chapels off the transept were built, bringing the total to four.
However, work on the nave progressed so quickly that Pope Pius IX was able to perform a solemn consecration in 1854. Many art historians were brutally critical of the result, complaining that little that was old was preserved and that the result looked like a train station (that jibe came from Augustus Hare). This was unfair, since the fire was so hot that even bronze melted on the entrance door and there was little left of the nave that was structurally sound. (Much salvaged stonework was, however, re-used as floor and wall covering.) On the other hand, it is correct to note that the present church nave, though magnificent, is a vast empty space with few devotional aids and in winter it can be painfully cold.
A completely new campanile, on the site of the chapel behind the apse, was finished in 1860. Work on the façade took place between 1873 and 1884. The portico was started in 1890, and was only completed in 1928. The last work of restoration was the provision of a baptistry in 1931 (the church was parochial). This was the end of the rebuilding campaign, and little has happened to the fabric of the basilica since.
The isolation in open countryside of the basilica came to an end at the start of the 20th century, when an electric tramway was built down the Via Ostiense to terminate here. As a result, rather ugly suburban developments started The first metro railway (Linea B), opened in 1955, has a station near the basilica which is now surrounded by development except to the north.
There a park preserves the view of the north side of the basilica, and is now called the Parco Ildefonso Schuster after Bl Ildephonsus Schuster, a saintly former abbot who became archbishop of Milan.
The latter part of the 20th century was an absolute disaster for the Benedictine abbey. An abbot elected in 1964, Giovanni Franzoni, apostatized and was laicized by Pope St Paul VI in 1976 (claiming subsequently to be a "dissident Catholic theologian" and "Christian Communist"). The community never recovered from this.
At the end of the 20th century, the ageing community began to fail definitively. This was not just owing to the Franzoni scandal, but was also part of the increasing difficulties being experienced by the Cassinese congregation of Benedictine monks, to which the abbey belonged. Vocations and morale had both collapsed.
Abbot Luca Collino had to resign in 1996, and the Order of St Benedict came close to losing the church during the tenure of his successor, Paolo Lunardon.
The parish was suppressed in 2002. Its territory had become restricted after the creation of new suburban parishes out of its extent, but it is still very unusual for the Diocese of Rome to suppress a parish.
According to a strong rumour, Opus Dei was making a bid for the basilica at the start of the new millennium, but another candidate was a new monastic congregation at Vallechiara known as the Monastic Family, Brotherhood of Jesus. This was on the verge of taking over in 2004, but (fortunately for the Benedictines) some questionable details of its observance came to light in that year.
Meanwhile, the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Order appealed to monasteries worldwide to provide monks for a new, international monastic community and this appeal was successful. However, Lunardon had to resign and the territorial abbacy suppressed in 2005 before this measure could be implemented. Hence, the abbot here no longer has the equivalent status of bishop.
The new abbot appointed (not elected) was Edmund Power, a monk of Douai Abbey in England. Under him, the revitalised community became well-known for its ecumenical outreach. It recovered well enough to elect its own abbot in 2015, who is Roberto Dotta.
Layout and fabric
The basilica is very large, on a T-shaped plan and aligned from west to east (this is the usual alignment for Christian churches, but any visitor to Rome will notice that Roman churches don't seem obliged to comply)
There is a long nave with aisles (Italian tre navate), and this has ten bays with a half-bay at each end. Then comes a very wide transept, backed by a semi-circular apse. Flanking the apse are four external side-chapels, and a further two chapels occupy the ends of the transepts (these have no structural significance).
The front of the church has a huge atrium or colonnaded courtyard on a square plan, which is flat-roofed. The left hand (north) end of the transept has an entrance lobby called the "Gregorian Portico", also flat-roofed.
A tower campanile abuts the back of the apse. Either side of this runs a very odd screen wall, which conceals the apse and side chapels from the street. This has no structural significance, and seems to have been provided in order to prevent people creeping into the corners and doing what human beings do at night.
The fabric is in brick, although this is concealed by a a greyish render on the exposed walls. The central nave walls each have ten proportionally small round-headed windows, matched by the side aisle walls. Three larger such windows occupy each of the transept ends, below the gable.
The roof is pitched and tiled, with separate pitches at the same height for nave and transept. The apse conch has a semi-dome in metal.
The original atrium had been demolished in the 14th century. When the church was rebuilt after the fire, it was decided to give it an atrium in the
original style. The rebuilding took more than a century, but the result is very pleasing. It was designed by Luigi Poletti. Some alterations to the design were made by Virgino Vespagniani after Poletti's death in 1869, and it was finally constructed by Guglielmo Calderini in the years 1890–1928.
Although it was built in the same style as the first atrium, it bears little resemblance to it since it is a much larger structure. The north and south side, 70 metres long, are covered on the outside by a travertine wall. The four corners have monumental propylaea, and the entrance façade has thirteen identical arches supported by Corinthian columns. There are a total of 150 such columns in the structure. The front (west) side has three rows of columns one behind the other, and on the inner side there are thirteen lunettes with paintings depicting Christ giving a blessing and the Apostles. On the north and south sides, which have double rows of columns, there are painted medallions with various Christian symbols separated by polychrome marble revetting.
The statue of St Paul in the atrium garden is by Giuseppe Obici, and was made in the 19th century It shows him holding the sword with which he was beheaded, and the Latin inscription on the plinth reads Predicatori veritatis, Doctori Gentium ([Dedicated] to the preacher of the truth, to the teacher of the Gentiles).
The original bell-tower at the entrance was added in the 11th or 12th century. The first one was destroyed by an earthquake in 1349, and Pope Clement VI had a new one built. It survived the fire, but was destroyed during the rebuilding. It was replaced by a new structure by Luigi Poletti between 1840 and 1860, behind the apse and with a different look. It resembles a Roman tomb found in the south of France. It's 65 metres high, with five floors. The clock faces on the second level are by Mariano Trevellini, and were made in 1863. The upper three floors are laid out according to the canon of Alberti, having the shapes, from bottom to top, of a square, an octagon and a circle. Their columns are arranged in the classical manner, with the heavy Doric style at the bottom, then the lighter Ionic style and on the top level Corinthian columns.
There are seven bells in the tower. Poletti placed four bells in it, all from the old church. Two were remelted in 1863 and 1930, and the other two, which dated to 1658, were kept here until 1959. That year, Blessed Pope John XXIII increased the number of bells to seven.
On the north side is a portico opening in on the north transept of the church. It is known as the Gregorian portico because it was built under Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) by Luigi Poletti. The columns were taken from the old building; one of them bears Pope Siricius' inscription about the building of the Theodosian basilica. There are eight in front, and four behind.The statue of the pope is by Rinaldo Rinaldi.
This is the most convenient entrance to the church for most local people, since it is by the main road. It is best to start any visit to the basilica from the nave entrances, but to leave here via the north-west corner of the transept.
The abbey has a mediaeval cloister next to the right hand end of the transept, and can be visited. The main part of the monastery is on the east side of this, a long and rather grim three-storey block which displays its mediaeval origins in its rather autistic civic presence. There is a larger cloister to the south of the mediaeval one and which shares its south range, but this has no arcades.
The large (for Rome) monastery garden is south of the basilica's nave.
You should make a point of entering the church through the main doors - not only because it gives the right first impression of the interior, but also because the atrium is a good place to start your visit here. The gold mosaics are impressive, especially on a sunny day or in the evening when the façade is floodlit. The mosaics that were here at the time of the fire were moved to the arch over the apse. The present ones were made between 1854 and 1874 by Vatican workshops, based on designs by Filippo Agricola and Nicola Consoni. In the tympanum of the pediment Christ is shown between the Apostles Peter and Paul. Below is the Lamb of God on the mountain of Paradise. The four rivers flowing from it symbolize the gospels, and the twelve lambs drinking from the rivers symbolize the Apostles. The cities are Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The lowest section shows the Old Testament Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel and these figures are separated by three large arched windows.
The main door
The door, of bronze with inlaid silver, is modern, made 1929–1931 by Antonio Maraini after the old door had been damaged in the fire of 1823. It's 7.48 metres high and 3.35 metres wide. (The old door had been a gift from Pope Gregory VII, set up in 1070, and was made of the same materials. It is now on the inside of the Holy Door -see "Byzantine door" below.)
The cross on the drawing represents a cross motif in curlicued silver, and this has on it plaques in lapis lazuli. Four on the horizontal bar show the symbols of the Evangelists, and on the vertical bar are the symbols of the Apostles.
The reliefs on the door show scenes from the lives, apostolates and martyrdoms of Sts Peter and Paul, according to the wishes of the abbot of the monastery, Bl Ildefonso Schuster. Apart from the two central scenes, all of the events depicted took place in Rome. The reliefs depict (see drawing on the right):
- Coat of arms of the Church
- Coat of arms of Rome
- The Crucifixion of St Peter
- "Domine, Quo Vadis?"
- Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter
- Foundation of the Papal See
- St Peter Baptizing in the Catacombs
- The Beheading of St Paul
- The Conversion of the Centurion
- St Paul's Conversion
- St Paul Teaching in Rome
- St Paul Reaches Rome and is Welcomed by the Faithful
Flanking the main door are 19th century statues of Sts Peter and Paul by Gregorio Zappalà.
The Holy Door
The Holy Door is to the far right. It is only open during Holy Years, and its opening is a ceremony performed by the Pope. The present door is of gilded bronze sculpted by Enrico Manfrini, and was installed in 2000 to replace an ordinary wooden door. There are six composite scenes depicted in relief. From top left, from left to right, they are: Resurrection, Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan; the Benignity of the Pope (note the dog); Pentecost (note Our Lady in the midst of the Apostles); Preaching and Martyrdom of St Paul; Crucifixion; Preaching Office of the Episcopate. The Latin inscription at the bottom reads: Ad sacram Pauli cunctis venientibus aedem sit pacis donum perpetuoque salus ("May the gift of peace and salvation for ever be to all those coming to the holy temple of Paul").
The Byzantine Door
It was one of the last wishes of Pope John XXIII that the old main door be taken out of the museum and restored, and since 1967 it is used to close the inside of the Holy Door between Jubilee Years. An inscription reveals that it was commissioned by Pantaleone, consul of Amalfi in Constantinople, and was made by Teodoro in 1070. The metal founder was called Staurachio. Its 54 panels show scenes from the lives of Christ and the Apostles. There are three columns and nine rows on each of the two leaves.
The nave, with two aisles on each side and twenty Corinthian columns in each arcade of Baveno granite and with Carrara marble capitals, was reconstructed 1831–1854. The plan remains as it was when the basilica was built, and the decoration is kept in the same style. Pasquale Belli made the first designs, and he was followed by Luigi Poletti in 1833.
The counterfaçade has six alabaster columns given by the Khedive of Egypt, Muhammed Ali , in 1840; there are four more by the confessio. The two central columns bear the arms of Pope Pius IX, carved by Giosuè Meli (the angels supporting these are by Ignazio Iacometti and Salvatore Revelli). The other two columns support nothing. The Khedive gave ten of these alabaster columns, but the architects were not going to trust such a soft stone with any serious load-bearing and were puzzled as to what to do with them. The gift itself is of historical significance, since the Khedive was in the process of turning Egypt from a neglected Turkish province into a modern state and wished to demonstrate his country's willingness to join the international community of nations.
The ceiling is decorated with the coats-of-arms of the popes who were engaged in the rebuilding, and is richly coffered in gold and white.
The lower windows have fine alabaster panes, given by King Fuad I of Egypt.
In niches along the walls, there are statues of ten Apostles. They were made in 1882, together with the statues of SS Peter and Paul by the confessio. Among the artists who made them are A. Allegretti, F. Fabi-Altini, E. Gallori and E. Maccagnani. St Peter is by Ignazio Jacometti, and St Paul by Salvatore Revelli again.
Paintings high up on the walls depict scenes from the life and missionary travels of St Paul, taken from the Acts of the Apostles. The project was started by Pope Pius IX. It took twenty-two artists only three years to complete the work, from 1857 to 1860. The series of thirty-six fresco panels begins in the transept to the right of the apse, runs around the nave and concludes in the left hand part of the transept. It replaced the destroyed Cavallini frescoes. The series is in chronological order, starting with the Martyrdom of St Stephen at which St Paul (as Saul) first makes an appearance, and ends with his own Martyrdom.
The windows and panels are divided by Corinthian pilaster strips. The paintings are best appreciated through binoculars.
The subjects and artists are, in order:
Martyrdom of St Stephen, and Conversion of Saul by Pietro Gagliardi.
Ananias Heals Saul's Blindness, and Saul's Baptism by Francesco Podesti.
Paul Preaches in Damascus, and Paul Escapes from Damascus by Guglielmo De Sanctis.
Council of Jerusalem by Nicola Consoni.
Commission of Paul and Barnabas, Conversion of Sergius at Paphos, Paul and Barnabas at Lystra and Stoning of Paul at Lystra by Cesare Mariani.
Vision at Troas and Exorcism at Philippi by Luigi Cochetti.
Paul and Silas Flogged at Philippi by Vincenzo Morani.
Conversion of the Jailer at Philippi by Giuseppi Sereni.
Paul on the Areopagus at Athens by Giovan Battista Pianello.
Paul in Corinth by Domenico Tojetti.
Ephesians burning their Magic Scrolls by Casimiro De Rossi.
Resurrection of Eutyches by Natale Carta.
Paul Leaves for Miletus by Marcello Sozzi.
Prophecy of Agabus by Roberto Bompiani.
Paul and James at Jerusalem by Cesare Dias.
Riot at the Temple and Paul Speaking to the Rioters by Francesco Grandi.
Paul Declaring Himself a Roman Citizen by Natale Carta (again).
Vision to Paul in Jerusalem and Paul before Felix by Domenico Bartolini.
Shipwreck on Malta and Paul and the Snake by Achille Scaccioni.
Paul Cures the Father of Publius by Nicola Consoni.
Paul Meets Rome's Christians and Paul in Rome by Carlo Gavardini.
Paul's Elevation to the Third Heaven and Paul in the Mamertine Prison by Francesco Coghetti.
Peter and Paul Say Farewell and Martyrdom of St Paul by Filippo Baldi.
Portraits of the Popes
Along the nave above the arcades, there are roundels containing portrait mosaics of all the popes from Peter to the present day. Traditionally the series was started by Pope Leo the Great, and it was continued by Cavellini when he executed his fresco panels in the nave in the 13th century. Then there was a hiatus until Pope Benedict XIV commissioned Salvatore Monosilio to make portraits up to his time. Those portraits were destroyed in the fire in 1823, apart from forty-one kept in the museum.
Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) restarted the project in 1847, specifying mosaics instead of frescoes, and since then it has been updated whenever a new pope is elected. There are currently eight spaces available.
Many painters were involved in the restoration, including those involved in the St Paul fresco panels which are above the roundels on the nave walls. The process of converting the temporary fresco likenesses into mosaic was only completed in 1875, and 19th century critics of the rebuilding were unkind about the result. This was because the task of determining the likeness of each pope was left not to scholars, but to Filippo Agricola who was only the manager of the Vatican's mosaic studio. As a result, only the recent popes have true likenesses and the others are simply arbitrary portraiture.
The mosaic on the first arch you come to as you walk up the nave is originally from the 5th century. The head of Christ is in the centre, with his hand raised in blessing in the Byzantine manner, and to the sides are symbols of the Evangelists, the 24 Ancients of the Apocalypse and angels. Below are SS Peter and Paul, the latter pointing toward his tomb. An inscription along the edge mentions the Emperor Theodosius, the Dowager Empress Galla Placidia (it is often referred to as the Arch of Galla Placidia) who donated the mosaic, and Pope St Leo I who was pope at the time. However, stylistic comparisons with the mosaic at Santi Nereo e Achilleo indicates that this mosaic was completely redone around the year 800.
The mosaic was damaged in the fire, but has been restored. The columns supporting the arch are new, being of Montórfano granite and 14 metres high. They replaced the equally enormous ancient cipollino marble columns which had been calcined in the fire -a serious loss.
The inscription reads: TEODOSIVS CEPIT PERFECIT ONORIVS AULAM / DOCTORIS MVNDI SACRATAM CORPORE PAVLI ("Theodosius started the church, Honorius finished it, it is made sacred by the body of Paul the teacher of the world").
High altar and confessio
The floor level of the transept was raised under Pope Gregory the Great. A crypt was opened behind the high altar at the same time but it was removed later, probably under Pope Leo III (795-816).
The confessio is the most sacred spot in the basilica, since it is the nearest that you can get to the actual tomb of the apostle. It is below the high altar on the nave side, and is approached by a double staircase. The balustrade in white marble surrounding the hypogeum (the area below floor level) was erected for the 1575 Jubilee. The bronze doors of the small entrance have likenesses of SS Timothy and Titus, disciples of St Paul, executed by Pietro Tenerani. Bishops who visit the "threshold of the Apostles" (ad Limina) come here, and to the confessio at San Pietro in Vaticano where St Peter is buried, to kneel in prayer. The present arrangement was established in 1600, under Pope Clement VIII.
During archeological investigations just after the fire, a 1st or 2nd century tomb of St Paul was found. A slab found here is now behind a grille, but if the church is not too crowded you can ask an attendant to see it. The inscription says PAULO APOSTOLO MART., and it has been dated to the 4th century, although there is little to go by other than the crude style of the letters. The openings in the slab were used to send incense into the tomb, and to pass pieces of cloth nearer the body so that they could be taken away as relics. It is often impossible to get a chance to see it, but there is a copy in the museum is you want to get an idea of what it looks like.
The high altar is a papal altar, meaning that only the Holy Father and those with special permission may celebrate Mass at it. It stands directly over the tomb of St Paul, and under its porphyry slab are the relics of St Timothy the Martyr (a different Timothy to the one already mentioned).
The canopy is by Arnolfo di Cambio and was his first work in Rome, made in 1285. The inscriptions on the frontage facing the nave proclaim his authorship. He was assisted by a colleague identified as Peter ("cum suo socio Petro"), which recent scholarship has identified as Pietro di Oderisio. The work is in the Gothic style, which is a bit unfortunate in this church, and the separate contributions of each artist are discernible. The porphyry columns are new, but the rest surprisingly survived the fire except for some details of the roof. In the restoration the whole structure was taken to bits, cleaned and restored and then re-assembled. In the process, it was found that some of the stonework included ancient inscriptions that had been re-used.
The new porphyry columns are obviously not of the old imperial type, having a different hue and larger inclusions in the stone. They have Composite capitals embellished with angels and vine leaves, and support four trefoil arches. The spandrels of these contain little figures: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the commissioning abbot offering the canopy to St Paul and finally two unidentified characters. Niches at the four corners contain statues of SS Peter, Paul, Timothy and Benedict. There are fretwork pinnacles above these statues, and a small shrine in the centre of the roof surmounted by a pyramidal spire. The interior of the canopy is adorned with rich mosaics, including depictions of animals, and four angels with candles and thuribles support the vault springers.
By the confessio are four alabaster columns that support nothing but air. They were part of the set given to the church by the Khedive of Egypt, and formed part of a large baldacchino that covered the altar area and overtopped the canopy. In this, the Corinthian columns supported an entablature with projecting cornice, and above was a hemispherical dome. Bronze angels occupied each corner, connected by metal curlicues, and there was more open scrollwork on the dome. The 19th century art critics were not the only people who hated this structure. It made a nonsense of the mediaeval altar canopy, and blocked the view of the apse mosaic from the nave. As a result It was taken down in 1912, but the columns remain.
The huge marble paschal candlestick in the right-hand transept, standing more than 5 metres high, is by Nichola dell'Angelo and Pietro Vassalletto, and was made in the 12th century. The base and top may have been reused from an older candlestick. The former is formed of a group of humans and animals, included sphinxes. The latter is a ring of monstrous animals supporting the calyx.  The decoration on the shaft depicts seven scenes from Christ's Passion and Resurrection: Christ before Caiaphas, the Mocking of Christ, Christ before Pilate, Pilate washing his hands, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension.
Interestingly, the figure of Christ on the cross is clothed in a tunic. This is a very ancient iconographic tradition, which was dying out at the time when the candlestick was carved.
Altar of the Conversion of St Paul
This is in the left hand transept. The altar was made in the 19th century, using malachite and lapis lazuli provided by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. (If you take a guided tour, beware that some of the guides claim that the tsar was Nicholas II.) The malachite is bright green, and the lapis is rich blue. Next to it on either side are statues of Pope St Gregory the Great by Francesco Laboureur and St Bernard of Clairvaux by Achille Stocchi. The altarpiece is by Vincenzo Camuccini, and it and the statues are framed by four Corinthian columns of pavonazzetto ("Peacock") marble supporting an architrave the frieze of which has a dedicatory inscription.
Chapel of St Stephen
There are four large enclosed chapels flanking the apse, with a set of doors by Foschini of 1928. The first on the left is that of St Stephen. This 19th century new-build chapel is a reminder that before his conversion, St Paul took part in the stoning of St Stephen, protomartyr of the Church. A statue of the saint by Rinaldo Rinaldi stands above the altar; he is described in art histories as a "mediocre disciple of Canova". The Stoning of St Stephen is by Francesco Podesti, and the Expulsion from the Sanhedrin is by Francesco Coghetti; both of these were executed in the 19th century. Part of the materials in the marble wall decoration are salvage from the early basilica. The wall pilasters are of red granite, and the dado of black and white Numidian breccia. The altar canopy has a pair of porphyry columns matching those of the altar canopy.
Blessed Sacrament Chapel
Left of the apse is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, designed in the Baroque style in 1725 by Carlo Maderno and formerly known as the Chapel of the Crucifix. It is the only one of the four chapels with an apse, and survived the fire completely intact. The crucifix, which is from the 14th century, is said to have spoken, or nodded, to St Bridget of Sweden when she prayed here in 1370. It has been attributed to Pietro Cavallini, but a recent restoration revealed remains of the original polychrome paintwork. It is now ascribed to the Sienese school of the early 14th century.
The mosaic of the Blessed Virgin with the Christ child, in the style of a Byzantine icon, is from the 12th or 13th century. It was before this icon that St Ignatius of Loyola and his companions made their first public vows on August 22nd 1541 and hence began the history of the Society of Jesus .
On the right near the entrance is a wooden statue of St Paul, from the 14th or 15th century. The scratches are made by pilgrims wishing to take splinters away as relics. The depiction of the saint as a small man with a dark pointed beard is extremely ancient iconographically, and may be based on his actual appearance.
On the corresponding left side, the 17th century statue of St Bridget is by Stefano Maderno and depicts her vision before the crucifix just mentioned. Four gilded stucco angels are in the side niches.
The 13th century painter Pietro Cavallini is buried in the chapel.
The apse mosaic, which barely survived the fire, is from about 1220 and was made by Venetian artists (stylistic confirmation has been obtained by comparing it with work in St Mark's Cathedral in Venice ). Christ is flanked by the Apostles Peter, Paul, Andrew and Luke who stand in a field filled with flowers and little animals.
The tiny figure near Christ's feet is Pope Honorius III, who ordered the mosaic. In the Roman tradition, popes had been placed with the Apostles in mosaics and paintings almost as equals but the attitude of great humility displayed here is unusual. The artists, with their Venetian background, were influenced by Byzantine traditions, leading to this change.
Beneath Christ is a throne with the instruments of the Passion and a jewelled Cross; this ancient symbol is known as the Hetimasia. In the centre of the cross is another depiction of the Teaching Christ. The throne is flanked by a pair of angels as well as the Apostles carrying scrolls with the text of Gloria in excelsis in a version slightly different to that used in Mass. From left to right are James the Great, Bartholomew, Thomas, Simon the Zealot, Matthias (replacing Judas Iscariot), Mark, John, Phillip, Matthew, James the Less, Jude and Barnabas. Note that Barnabas and Mark, not of the Twelve, replace Peter and Andrew already depicted above.Beneath the angels are seven small figures representing the Holy Innocents and the abbot and sacristan at the time of the mosaic.
The work was restored in 1747 by Pope Benedict XIV. Modern scholars consider that this restoration, and that after the fire, replaced most of the original tesserae. The certainly genuine portion that survives comprises the Hetimasia, the figure of Pope Honorius and Christ's feet. Other portions of the original work have been kept in the so-called "Gregorian Room" which is to the right of St Benedict's Chapel.
Below the mosaic is the papal throne, framed by four Corinthian columns in the same style as the side altars. The tablets to each side list those bishops present for the re-consecration in 1854. The throne itself is by Poletti, and the relief on its back showing Christ Giving the Keys to Peter is by Pietro Tenerari. 19th century art critics described this work as "stupid".
Mosaics on the inside of the triumphal arch.
The mosaics on the inside of the arch, visible if you stand close to the railing and look upwards, are also from the 13th century. Some were apparently made by Byzantine artists, and some are by Pietro Cavallini. They were orginally on the outside of the nave façade, but were moved here after the fire. Unfortunately, they were already falling off the façade before the fire so the 19th century rebuilders had to restore them substantially. As a result, modern art historians cannot ascribe authorship with any certainty.
Chapel of St Lawrence
This chapel, the first on the right, was designed by Carlo Maderno in 1629. It is also known as the Chapel of the Choir, as it is here that the Benedictine community sing Office and celebrate Mass. It was originally built as a chapel for the Blessed Sacrament, and was decorated with eight paintings and lunette frescoes by Giovanni Lanfranco. The ceiling vault has a fresco depicting events from the life of St Lawrence, with lots of angels in attendance, and is by Antonio Viligiardi. The sybils and prophets on the vault are, however, by Anastasio Fontebuoni. Botched repairs to the roof have unfortunately lead to recent damage to the ceiling frescoes. The wooden stalls are a later addition, designed by Guglielmo Calderini in 1928 and made by Monteneri.
The marble triptych above the altar is of the school of Andrea Bregno, 15th century, and used to be on the counterfaçade. From left to right, the saints are Anthony of Egypt, Dionysius and Justina.
Chapel of St Benedict
This is the last chapel on the right, and is a sumptious design by Luigi Poletti, made to recall the cella of an ancient temple. It replaced an entrance passage which was the only way into the old basilica from the Via Ostiense, as well as two small rooms. The statue of the saint behind the altar is by Pietro Tenerari, made in the 19th century. The twelve fluted Doric columns are ancient, from the Portonaccio (Veio) excavations at Isola Farnese , and have Composite capitals decorated with flowers. The marble used is ash-grey. One of the capitals is a copy. The barrel-vaulted ceiling is spectacularly coffered in white and gold, as is the tympanum of the recessed arch above the altar.
Altar of Our Lady of the Assumption
This is in the right-hand part of the transept. Like its twin in the left transept, this altar is made of malachite and lapis lazuli, again a gift from Tsar Nicholas I. Above the altar is a mosaic copy of the Coronation of the Virgin by Guilio Romano, originally painted in 1492 and now in the Vatican Museum. The two statues to either side here are St Benedict by Filippo Gnaccarini, and St Scholastica by Felice Baini.
Oratory of St Julian
The frescoes of Apostles and martyrs here are from the 13th century, and part (SS Peter and Paul) has been attributed to Antonio da Viterbo, nicknamed Il Pastura. They have been repainted several times, and are not now in a good condition. The oratory is also the direct route from basilica to the cloisters, with a turnstile installed, and is also used for the sale of souvenirs. An alternative name is Sala del Martirologio.
This room is ancient, but the arrangement of the baptistry is modern as it was restored in 1930 by Arnaldo Foschini as the last phase of the restoration after the fire. It is has an entrance in the south-east corner of the transept; this entrance is also the main way into the monastery.
The room has vaulting supported by cipollino marble Ionic columns, and walls revetted in polychrome marble slabs in rectangular frames. All this work is ancient. The font, however, is modern, and is carved from a block of veined marble. The decoration is impressive, and freatures stylized animals in malachite, lapis lazuli and mother-of-pearl.
Unfortunately, the recent loss of parochial status on the part of the basilica means that the font will not be regularly used except perhaps at Easter for adult converts.
The older of the two cloisters was built 1208–1235 by the Vassalletti family.
The arcades have coupled colonnettes of different forms, some round, some polygonal, some twisted and some intertwined. They, and the entablature they support, have Cosmatesque decoration. The inscription in the mosaics is a poem describing the importance of his cloister in the life of a monk, and its use as a place of meditation and study. A few small carved animals survive between the columns, although most of these have gone. On the north side it is worth looking for a carving of Adam and Eve flanking a tree with the serpent snaking up it. The cloister garth is now occupied by a rose garden of high quality (for Italy, anyway). The walls of the walks are a display of items of ancient sculpture and epigraphy recovered in excavations, especially during the rebuilding. More of these are on the walls of the internal corridors of the abbey, which are only accessible to guests of the monastery.
Modern scholars accept that the northern side of the cloister is by the Vassalletti and was completed after that at the Lateran, about 1227. The other three sides are earlier, and not so stylistically accomplished. Their authorship is now disputed, although a date between 1208 and 1235 is accepted.
Chapel of Relics
The Chapel of Relics has a set of chains said to be the prison chains of St Pauls, used in the last days before his execution. They are exposed in the church on his feasts. There are also numerous other relics.
The library has in its possession the Bible commissioned by King Charles the Bald for his wedding in 870, which is the oldest preserved Carolingian manuscript. It was made under the supervision of Archbishop Hincmar of Reims (845-875). It may have been given to Pope John VIII at Christmas 875.
Museum and shop
Continuing from the cloister, you reach a museum with paintings, icons and other objects, and a shop with souvenirs, postcards and products made by the monks. The liqueurs that they make are of very high quality; beware of the absinthe, which is 68% alcohol! There are also pharmaceutical items, toiletries and foodstuffs from other monasteries. See the abbey website for details of the products on offer.
On the Via Ostiense to the north of the east end of the basilica are displayed excavated tombs of the cemetery in which St Paul was buried. These are sheltered under a pagoda roof. Closer examination is possible by means of occasional guided tours -search online for Necropoli di San Paolo.
Further rock-cut tombs lurk in the escarpment to the east of the road, but are not easily accessible.
Those interested in Rome's transport history might care to note that the wide path to the west of the Necropoli is the line of the original tramway.
The basilica is open all day, every day:
7:00 to 18:30.
The public areas of the monastery have separate access arrangements, and there is an admission charge. Unfortunately the opening is later:
8:30 to 18:00 (according to the basilica's website, June 2018).
Visitors in recent years have found the monastery's public entrance shut for lunch from 13:00 to 15:00, especially in August. This was apparently owing to difficulties over staffing (the monastery provides its own staff, and does not rely on the Vatican employees in the basilica).
The monastery gardens are sometimes visitable via a guided tour. See the abbey website (link below).
The number of visitors has certainly fallen substantially since the latter part of the 20th century. On the other hand, visitors tend to be genuine pilgrims rather than tourists and this is possibly the major basilica with the most prayerful atmosphere.
The only reasonable way to get here is via the Metro. The parallel bus service on the Via Ostiense is unreliable.
The basilica is part of the Seven Church Walk.
It is possible to combine a visit to the basilica with one to the Trappist abbey of Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio alle Tre Fontane. The 761 bus terminates and waits for passengers at the Largo Beato Riccardi which is south of the main crossroads west of the station at San Paolo.
According to the Diocese, Mass is celebrated:
Weekdays 6:45, 8:00, 9:00, 10:30, 17:00 (18:00 Saturdays);
Sundays and Solemnities 7:00, 8:00, 9:00, 10:30, 12:00, 18:00.
Vespers is celebrated in the basilica at 18:00 or 18:30 on weekdays, and 17:00 on Sundays. The rest of the Divine Office celebrated in common by the monks is usually in one of the external side chapels, and is not publicised.
The basilica is popular for the Sacrament of Penance.
- Info.roma web-page
- "Sacred-destinations" web-page
- Vatican's website with virtual tour
- Engraving of the ruin after the great fire
- Piranesi engraving of the basilica before the fire
- Youtube video of the basilica
- Youtube video of an English tour of the basilica (Recommended.)
- Youtube video of the cloister
- Youtube video of the bells being rung
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