To date, very little of Constantine’s early Christian chapel, which appears to have been built above the grave of St Paul in the 4th century, has been excavated. However, it appears certain that St Paul, who according to tradition was beheaded in the year 67 and buried on the Via Ostiensis, was venerated in this place. In order to honour the memory of an apostle who is revered by all Christians, Roman emperors of the 4th and 5th centuries constructed the basilica “St Paul’s Outside the Walls”.
It was the largest church in the world until the construction of St Peter’s in the 16th century. The old church was damaged several times by earthquake and fire. On 15 July 1823 the carelessness of a plumber caused it to burn to the ground entirely, necessitating complete rebuilding with the support of many Christian nations which took almost 30 years.
The church is one of the four patriarchal basilicas – the other three are San Giovanni in Laterano, San Pietro in Vaticano and Santa Maria Maggiore – and one of the seven pilgrimage churches, which also include Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura and San Sebastiano.
The way into the church leads through a colonnaded atrium and a narthex decorated with 19th-century mosaics on the upper part of the façade, and on to the Holy Gate, the inside of which is adorned with the original bronze door, cast in Constantinople in the 11th century.
The alabaster windows let very little light into the interior of the church, which consists of a nave and four aisles. 80 columns stand in rows like a forest and lead to the triumphal arch with a 5th-century mosaic, the altar ciborium and the apse mosaic.
The walls are decorated with 265 medallions showing portraits of every pope from St Peter to John Paul II. The furnishings of the apse, such as the bishop’s throne, were replaced in the 19th century by copies, except for the heavily restored 13th-century mosaic, which was commissioned in 1220 by Honorius III from Venetian artists.
The ciborium above the papal altar, which as in St Peter’s probably stands above the tomb of the apostle, was made in 1285 by Arnolfo di Cambio on the orders of Abbot Bartholomew. To the right of it is a 5.6 m. high Easter candelabra, a magnificent medieval work by Nicolo di Angelo and Pietro Vassalletti. Through the vestry there is access to the cloister of the Benedictine monastery, which was decorated by mosaic artists from the Vassalletti family between 1204 and 1241. The variety of column types and the colourful mosaic patterns make it one of the most beautiful in Italy.
Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls – Photo Gallery:
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Distance to the Colosseum
Saint Paul Outside the Walls set in the center of Rome, 3,6 km from (46 min walk) from Colosseum. Bus: 11, 71, 109, 111, 309, 311, 411, 415, 492. Tram: 19, 19b, 30, 30b.