St. Peter and St. Paul are both the patron saints of Rome. While most people have heard of, and visited St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, few have been to the basilica of St. Paul. The basilica, as the name suggests, was built just outside the Aurelian walls to the south of Rome, on the Ostiense way, one of the main roads leading to Rome.

The location was chosen specifically as it was close to the site of St. Paul’s martyrdom in AD 67, and the church was built around his tomb. Paul was not one of the original apostles, and likely never met Jesus, but he was a Jew and studied law in Jerusalem. St. Paul was zealously against the followers of Jesus in his early life, but underwent a miraculous conversion while on the road to Damascus, where he witnessed a blinding light, heard the voice of Jesus, fell off his horse and was struck blind for three days. He came to Rome in AD 61 for his trial, where he was condemned to death for being a Christian. Nevertheless, St. Paul was highly influential in establishing the doctrine and organizing the administration of the early Christian church, largely due to his writings, intellect, education and Roman citizenship. As a Roman citizen, he was higher in status than the other apostles, like St. Peter, who were working and living in Rome at the time. Despite this fact, he was, nonetheless, executed for his beliefs. However, St. Paul was afforded a more civilized and noble death, as crucifixion was rarely inflicted on high-ranking Roman citizens, and was beheaded.

Photo by flickr user: april

Photo by flickr user: april

The basilica is one of the 4 patriarchal basilicas in Rome, and along with St. Peter’s basilica and the Lateran Cathedral was one of the first official Christian churches in the world, commissioned by Emperor Constantine in AD 324.

The word basilica, which today is very much associated with religious architecture and churches, was originally an ancient Roman building type that was secular in purpose. The Roman basilica was a place of law and commerce, a town hall, stock exchange, and gathering place. The rectangular interior was lined with columns to create a central nave and side aisles. At the end of the basilica was an apse, or semi-circular niche set into the wall, which would contain a statue, either of the reigning emperor or of a particular god, perhaps the patron of the city or country in which the basilica was built. In larger basilicas there was usually a clerestory, or series of windows, above the colonnade in the central nave, creating a double height space, which was lit from above. In terms of Western architecture all of these features can be found in most churches today.

So why did the early church choose the basilica as the form of architectural language they would use to build their new churches in when Christianity became legal in the 4th century? Classical Greco-Roman architecture followed a strict language in terms of style, shape, and use. The temple form, with it’s pedimented portico supported by columns, was a standard form for a religious building in Europe at the time, but this form was clearly linked with paganism. Furthermore, the Greco-Roman temple was not designed for public worship. While the exterior was supposed to express grandeur and dominate the cityscape, or skyline, the interior was comparatively small, and few people were granted access to the inner sanctum. In contrast to this, the early Christians wanted a place where they could gather together and celebrate mass, and the large interior of the basilica was perfect for this function. The basilica had no associations with pagan worship, but was a recognizable architectural form, which carried with it the connotations of legitimacy, formality, and importance, due to its original use as a law court and town hall. This coupled with the fact that it was flexible, the general shape could be enlarged or reduced according to the importance of the building or the number of people living in the area, meant it was ideally suited to being appropriated for Christian worship. When the first constantinian basilicas were commissioned in Rome they were intended to rival the great Greco-Roman temples and fit in with the grandeur of the imperial city, and so they were built on an impressive scale.

St. Paul’s Outside the Walls was originally built to a modest scale, but was soon judged to be too small for the excessive number of pilgrims who gathered there to visit the tomb of the martyr. From 384-395 it was rebuilt on a much grander scale, and until the new St. Peter’s basilica was built in the 16th century, it was the biggest church in Rome. Unfortunately, the basilica burnt down in a fire in 1823, but from 18?? to 1854 It was completely rebuilt, with painstaking attention to detail, in order to preserve the original size, shape, and style of the building. Although not the original church, it is the closest we will get to experience the grandeur of an early Christian constantinian-style basilica. As with any building whose origins date back over 1,600 years, it has a long and complicated history. The structure was almost entirely rebuilt after the fire, but luckily, there remains some of the original decorative elements of the building, which either survived the fire or were painstakingly restored and reused in the 19th reconstruction.

In the 5th century Pope Leo the Great undertook the first major renovation of the interior by rebuilding the roof and commissioning the mosaics on one side of the triumphant arch in the nave. Later, the mosaic, which decorates the apse, was commissioned by Pope Honorius III, and is part of the spectacular redecoration of the interior of the basilica, which took place in the 13th century. Known as the golden age, this is when the cloister was added to the monastery, the Paschal candle and the canopy were added to the papal altar. Like at the Lateran Cathedral, there is a mediaeval cloister at St. Paul’s, which completely escaped the devastation of the fire. It was completed in the early 13th century and is probably the most beautiful example of it’s kind in Rome. It was designed by Vassalletto, with a covered colonnade with twisted columns of various shapes, with mosaic inlay, surrounding a rose garden. Access to the cloister is via the south transept, and some of the fragmented remains from the original basilica are displayed here.

The importance of the Jubilee year, which started in 1300, was also influential in adding to the decoration of the interior of St. Paul’s. For the jubilee in 1600 Pope Clement VIII commissioned the high altar, located in the XX of the apse, while the chapel of St. Laurence, designed by Carlo Maderno, was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII for the following jubilee in 1625.

Photo by Flickr user: Steve Moses

Photo by Flickr user: Steve Moses

The building is also special for another reason, the imposing quadriportico, which is basically a atrium or courtyard attached to the front of the basilica, surrounded on all four sides by a colonnade. While the current quadriportico dates from the 19th century, this architectural feature would have been a much more common in early Christian churches than it is today. Very few churches from the period still have their original entrance space, the front atrium, which allowed for a period of calm and tranquility before the visitor stepped through the front porch into the sanctity of the church. It also served another, vital, function in the early Christian church as a place for teaching and education, particularly at a time when adult conversion was commonplace, and for washing in the fountains, which was done before entering the church. From a liturgical standpoint, it was used by the clergy, particularly after a procession, to remove their ‘city’ clothes, which would have been covered in the dust and dirt of the city, and put on liturgical robes. As time went on, most of the churches which originally had this architectural feature were either destroyed and rebuilt without it, or sacrificed the space in front of the church to the needs of the growing urban space surrounding it, reducing the size of the intermediary space to a narthex, portico or front porch. In many churches today the feature is entirely absent, but there is usually a set of interior and exterior doors that help screen the outside world from the sanctity of the space inside.

Standing in the middle of the quadriportico you can see the mosaics on the front façade of the church. These are 19th century reproductions, but the original mosaics from the façade can be seen inside the church. Although today it would be quite strange to decorate the exterior of a building in such a way, this was quite common in the middle ages, and you can still see an original example of this at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Trastevere, in Rome.

As you move to the front porch you will see three doors. The central door was made in the early 20th century to replace the original 11th century door, which was damaged in the fire. The new door, which depicts scenes from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul is made of bronze, inlaid with silver, and decorated with lapis lazuli. To the right of this you will see the Jubilee Door, which was erected for the Jubilee in 2000, and contains an inscription which reads: “the gift of peace and eternal salvation to be granted to all those visiting Paul’s Holy Temple.” The original 11th century door has been restored and can now be seen on the inside of the church on the other side of the Holy Door.

Once you enter through the main doors of the basilica you will notice how vast the interior really is. There is no separation of space between the central nave and side aisles as the forest of 80 columns acts more like a screen than a wall allowing free, uninterrupted movement from one side of the church to the other.

On the walls above the colonnade in the central nave you will see a series of round mosaic portraits of the popes. This tradition was started in the 5th century by Pope Leo the Great, and continues to this day. Every pope in the history of the Catholic church is depicted on the walls of St. Paul’s basilica, up to and including Pope Benedict XVI.

Photo by Flickr user: jeaneeem

Photo by Flickr user: jeaneeem

It should also be pointed out that the light, which enters the building through the series of windows, known as a clerestory, above the columns in the central nave, shines through panes of alabaster, not glass. This infuses the interior with a beautiful golden light, and is quite different from the effect of stained glass or clear glass windows. The alabaster was donated by King Fouad I of Egypt as a gift to help rebuild the church, after the Pope Leo XII issued a special encyclical in 1825 asking the Catholic world to help pay for the reconstruction costs of the basilica. The Romans didn’t use glass in their buildings until the 1st century AD, and even then it was extremely rare, and the use of stained glass to fill windows in a church only became commonplace in Europe from the 12th – 13th century. Glass in domestic houses only began in the 17th century and was prohibitively expensive. In many of the larger basilicas in Rome, if there had been anything used to glaze the window openings at all, it would have been marble, mica, shell, or as in the case of St. Paul’s, alabaster, cut extremely thinly, which allows the light to penetrate. The beautiful alabaster windows at St. Paul’s are some of the few examples in the world today, and give us the rare opportunity to see what an ancient Roman basilica would have looked like on the inside.

The decoration in the nave all dates from the 19th century reconstruction, but the beautifully carved and gilt ceiling are impressive nonetheless. The marble baldacchino, or canopy, at the end of the nave covers the papal altar, and was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, an extremely famous 13th-century artist. Under the altar is the confessio containing the tomb of St. Paul. There is also the beautiful 12th century candelabra for the Paschal to the right of the high altar, carved by Vassalletto.

Photo by Flickr user: tudor-rose

Photo by Flickr user: tudor-rose

On the end-wall of the nave there is a triumphant arch, which separates this part of the church from the apse behind it. One side of the arch is decorated with 5th century mosaics, which were commissioned by Pope Leo the Great. After the fire, which destroyed the church, these mosaics were carefully restored and repositioned in their original position piece by piece. The mosaics show scenes from the Apocolypse with the 24 Elders of the Apocolypse flanking a bust of Jesus Christ. On the other side of the arch are more mosaics by the artist Pietro Cavallini, dating from the 13th century, which were originally on the main façade of the basilica.

The apse is decorated with the remains of the 13th century mosaics, which were restored and recreated after the fire. They show Christ enthroned, flanked by the Apostles Peter, Paul, Andrew and Luke. At the bottom of Jesus’s right foot you will notice a small crouching figure dressed in white, which is Pope Honorius III, who commissioned the mosaics.

Off the transept are a number of smaller chapels, including the Chapel of St. Lawrence, dating from the 17th century, and the Chapel of the Relics, which contains numerous relics but the most significant has to be the set of chains that were used to restrain St. Paul while he was in prison in Rome before his execution.

St. Paul’s Outside the Walls is open everyday from 7am-6.30pm and is only a short walk from the Metro B station named San Paolo. For more information about mass times, and events click on this LINK

Content by Ciarán Durkan


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