In January 2017, I returned to the San Paolo fuori le Mura, one of the five papal basilicas in Rome. I had previously visited the basilica in 2011 and was eager to see it again. The San Paolo is the third most important church in the city, preceded only by the San Giovanni in Laterano (the seat of the Pope as Bishop of Rome) and Saint Peter’s Basilica. It is also the second largest basilica in Rome. It immediately became clear to me that a few things had changed since my last visit. Because of international tensions and terrorist attacks, security had been stepped up significantly. The old entrance in the transept was closed; visitors could only enter the church through the atrium and had to have their bags and persons checked by the police. It was a minor convenience, and the attentive policemen on duty made sure I did not forget my cell phone.
History of the church
According to tradition, Saint Paul the Apostle was martyred in Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero, possibly in the year 67. Unlike his fellow apostle Saint Peter, he was not crucified. Since Paul was a Roman citizen from Tarsus, he was beheaded by the sword, which was considered a more dignified way to die. Paul was buried in a cemetery on the Via Ostiense, the road to Ostia. It was here that the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) built a small church over Paul’s grave, which was consecrated on 18 November 324. This church was demolished and four Roman emperors were responsible for the construction of a new and much larger basilica between 384 and 395: Valentinianus II, Theodosius the Great and his sons Arcadius and Honorius.
The basilica is some two kilometres outside the Aurelian city walls (“fuori le Mura”) and was originally in the countryside. It was therefore quite vulnerable. The San Paolo was pillaged twice by Lombard invaders, in 739 and again in 773, and once by Arab raiders in 846, who reportedly carried away over five tons of gold and silver (no doubt an exaggeration). For this reason Pope John VIII (872-882) had the church surrounded by walls and defensive towers, which created a little town that was named Johannipolis after him. The defences may have stopped marauding hordes, but they did not stop the river Tiber. The basilica is quite close to a bend in the river – just above the San Paolo it meanders off to the west, before going south and east again – and this meant that it was at a location that was often flooded. The most famous flood occurred in 1700, which was a Holy Year. The result was that pilgrims could not visit the church and had to move to the Santa Maria in Trastevere instead.
However, the most serious disaster to hit the San Paolo was the great fire during the night of 15 and 16 July 1823 which left the basilica ruinous. Fifteen centuries of cultural and religious history were destroyed in little over five hours, as one of my travel guides strikingly puts it. The fire was started when a careless worker, involved in repairing the lead of the roof, left a brazier burning. Soon the flames were out of control. Tradition dictates that Pope Pius VII (1800-1823), who lay dying, was not informed of the fire. He died little over a month later, apparently still unaware of the fate of one of the most important churches in the Roman Catholic world.
Pius’ successor was Pope Leo XII (1823-1831). He opted against building a new and modern church. Instead, the old San Paolo had to be rebuilt on its own footprint. A rebuilding process started which would continue until about 1930, although work proceeded so quickly that the new church could be consecrated by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) as early as 1854. One of my travel guides claims that during the rebuilding, convicted criminals were used as forced labourers. They were allegedly chained together like galley slaves. I have not found a source for this story, and to be frank: it sounds ridiculous and about as convincing as the theory that the pyramids in Egypt were built by slaves.
And speaking of Egypt, even rulers of Islamic countries provided help. In 1840, Muhammad Ali – not the boxer, but the self-declared Khedive of Egypt – sent alabaster columns to Rome. Alabaster panes for some of the windows were provided by one of Ali’s successors, Fuad I, Sultan (1917-1922) and later King (1922-1936) of Egypt. Czar Nicholas I of Russia (1825-1855), known as the gendarme of Europe because of his many foreign interventions, was helpful too: he sent precious malachite and lapis lazuli to Rome for the altars in the transept.
The result of the rebuilding process is a basilica that is basically a copy of the one that Valentinianus II, Theodosius, Arcadius and Honorius built in the fourth century. “A faithful, but slightly boring reconstruction” according to one of my travel guides. But I protest! The church is anything but boring. It is vast, overwhelming and unforgettable, but it is also rather void. The nave is a huge and empty space, devoid of pews or even chairs. Mass may only be read from the high altar by the Pope himself. After all, this is a papal basilica. The Holy Father himself is usually absent, so if you want to join the liturgical services here, try the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament to the left of the apse. I found a celebration going on there when I visited the San Paolo in early 2017.
Atrium and facade
So let us now explore the basilica, to establish that it is certainly not boring. In front of the church is a lovely atrium with palm trees. This is actually a new addition. The original fourth century basilica of course had an atrium, but – as was so often the case with medieval churches in Rome – it was demolished in the fourteenth century. The current atrium was designed by Luigi Poletti (1792-1869) and completed long after his death. It is much larger than the original atrium, measuring some 70 by 68 metres. In the centre is a marble statue of Saint Paul by Giuseppe Obici (1807-1878). Paul is carrying a sword, a reference to the fact that he was decapitated.
The mosaics of the facade are beautiful. Keep in mind that they are very modern: they were made between 1854 and 1874 by Vatican workshops. In the pediment, we see Christ flanked by Saint Peter with the Keys of Heaven and Saint Paul with the sword again. Below them is the Lamb of God between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The other lambs in the scene represent the Apostles, and the four rivers symbolise the four Gospels. The lower part of the mosaic shows the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. Some of the original facade mosaics, executed in the early fourteenth century, survived the fire of 1823 and were moved to the triumphal arches inside the basilica. See below for more information. The facade is topped by a cross. The text beneath it reads SPES VNICA, indicating that the cross is our only hope.
You cannot enter the church through the central door, which is always closed, but should definitely take a moment or two to admire it. It is also modern, less than 100 years old and made of bronze with inlaid silver between 1929 and 1931. The door is the work of the artist (and Fascist politician) Antonio Maraini (1886-1963). The left side of the door shows scenes from the life of Saint Peter, the right side of the life of Saint Paul.
The original central door dates back to 1070 and was imported from Constantinople by cardinal Hildebrand, who later became Pope Gregorius VII (1073-1085). Because of its origins, the door is often referred to as the “Byzantine Door”. The Byzantine Door was damaged during the fire of 1823 and what was left of it – some of the bronze melted due to the intense heat – was moved to the church museum. In 1967, it was taken out of the museum again and since then it has been used to cover the inside of the Holy Door, that is the door on the far right of the church. The Byzantine Door has 54 panels, 27 on either side. The panels show scenes from the life of Christ, but also from the lives and especially the martyrdoms of some of the Apostles (Peter, Paul, Andrew, Bartholomew, Thomas, Philip etc.). Other panels show Old Testament prophets, eagles or crosses.
As stated above, the nave is huge and empty. There are four aisles, two on either side. The walls of the nave have modern frescoes, painted between 1857 and 1860 by a plethora of Italian artists. The frescoes replaced work by the medieval artist Pietro Cavallini (ca. 1259-1330). Cavallini’s cycle, featuring scenes from the Old Testament and the Acts of the Apostles, may have been among his earliest work, possibly executed in the 1280s. Most of his frescoes were destroyed when the 1823 fire swept through the basilica. One thing the fire did not destroy was the ceiling. The simple reason: there was none. The roof of the San Paolo has always been open, the gigantic beams and rafters fully visible to the churchgoers. The reconstruction after the fire provided the church with a ceiling for the first time in its history.
At the end of the nave is a triumphal arch with a splendid mosaic. This is the original fifth century mosaic, at least with regard to its composition. The mosaic was completely re-laid around the year 800 and it had to be heavily restored after the 1823 fire. The Latin text on the arch identifies Theodosius as the emperor who started the church (called the Aula) and Honorius as the one who completed it. The text also mentions Galla Placidia (ca. 388/393-450), Theodosius’ daughter and Honorius’ half-sister (for more details about her life, see this post), as well as Pope Leo I (440-461).
Leo restored the San Paolo after it had been damaged by lightning or an earthquake and Galla Placidia presumably sponsored the mosaic. The arch features a large portrait of Christ in a tondo, showing his head and torso. He is holding what is probably a shepherd’s staff in his left hand while giving his blessing with his right. Christ is flanked by the symbols of the four Evangelists in the sky and by the 24 elders from the Book of Revelation. In the lower part of the arch we see Saint Paul on the left (pointing at his tomb) and Saint Peter on the right.
The high altar is covered by a large Gothic baldachin. The maker is easily identified because he signed his work:
HOC OPVS FECIT ARNOLFVS CVM SVO SOCIO PETRO
Arnolfus is the Florentine architect and sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio (ca. 1240-1300/1310), who made this wonderful work of art in 1285. It is not entirely clear who his companion Petrus was. One travel guide suggests that he was Pietro Cavallini, but Pietro di Oderisio might be a better guess, a sculptor who is not even half as famous as Cavallini.
In front of the high altar is the confessio, which you can reach by going down the double stairs (there is one-way traffic on the stairs). Once down, you can see the tomb of Saint Paul beneath the high altar. On it is the text PAULO APOSTOLO MART. Whether this is truly the tomb of Saint Paul is of course up for debate, but since we are not talking about science here, but about faith, all that really matters is whether people believe it to be his tomb.
To the right of the confessio, just before the triumphal arch, is another treasure of the church: a twelfth century Paschal candlestick, over five metres high. It is the work of the artists Pietro Vassalletto and Niccolò d’Angelo, about whose lives we know very little (the Vassalletto family will return below when I discuss the cloister). The candlestick shows scenes from the Passion of Christ.
Make sure you can fully admire this highlight of the San Paolo by bringing some coins with you to turn on the lights of the apse for a minute or two. The light in the church is not bad, but to fully appreciate the beauty of the apse mosaic some artificial light is a welcome addition. Pope Honorius III (1216-1227) commissioned the mosaic in the 1220s, possibly to replace an earlier mosaic dating from the pontificate of Pope Leo III (795-816). Honorius’ name can be found on the soffit of the arch above the conch of the apse. He can also be seen as a person, kneeling, almost prostrating himself at Christ’s right foot. The pope is depicted as tiny man, in the Byzantine fashion. The mosaics were executed by Venetian artists, and Venice had always had close ties (though not always friendly, remember the Fourth Crusade!) to the Eastern Roman Empire.
Much of the mosaic was redone during the pontificate of Pope Benedictus XIV (1740-1758). The re-laid mosaic subsequently and quite amazingly survived the great fire of 1823, but it had to be restored nonetheless. The mosaic that we see today is colourful and impressive. Christ is seated on a throne at the centre, with Pope Honorius (possibly made of the original thirteenth century tesserae) at his feet. He is flanked by Saint Luke the Evangelist and Saint Paul on the left, with Paul’s name given in both Greek and Latin (he was a Roman citizen from a part of the Empire were Greek rather than Latin would have been spoken). On the right are Saint Peter and his brother Saint Andrew.
In the lower part of the conch, we see the familiar empty throne with a jewelled cross (the Hetoimasia) referring to the second coming of Christ. On either side of the cross are angels and Apostles. The mosaics on the arch above the conch and on the reverse side of the triumphal arch were taken from the facade of the San Paolo after the 1823 fire. Some of them were definitely made by Cavallini, others by unknown artists. The arch above the conch has images of a Madonna and Child and of Saint John the Baptist, as well as the symbols of the Evangelists Matthew and John, a man and an eagle. The reverse side of the triumphal arch has a tondo with Christ in the centre, Saints Paul and Peter and a bull and a lion, the symbols of the other two Evangelists, Luke and Mark.
Starting to the right of the apse and continuing all the way through the basilica is a fascinating series of tondi, featuring all the popes since Saint Peter. The series was traditionally started by Pope Leo I in the fifth century. The cycle was continued by the aforementioned Cavallini and much later by Salvatore Monosolio (1700-1776), who received a commission from Pope Benedictus XIV. Since that pope, a new portrait has been made for every new pope. Most portraits were destroyed in the great fire of 1823; some survived and are now kept in the church museum. Pope Pius IX decided that the portraits, which had apparently been painted in fresco, were to be replaced by mosaics. After his election in 2013, a portrait of Pope Franciscus was added. Below each portrait is a text indicating how many years, months and days each pope has served as Supreme Pontiff.
The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament has already been mentioned above. It is the work of the architect Carlo Maderno (1556-1629). He is most famous for designing the facade of Saint Peter’s Basilica, but he also designed the facade of the Sant’Andrea della Valle and finished the Salviati Chapel of the San Gregorio Magno. The painter and mosaicist Cavallini, already mentioned above, was buried in this chapel and Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Order of the Jesuits, took his public vows here in 1541. The chapel survived the 1823 fire unscathed. I must say it is the most interesting chapel in the church. You can skip the other chapels if you are in a hurry.
But do not forget to visit the cloister! There is an admission charge, but it is one of the most beautiful and serene in all of Rome. The cloister was built between 1208 and 1235 and part of it was constructed by members of the Vassalletto family mentioned above. They used Cosmatesque decorations for the columns, many of which are truly magnificent as regards colour and shape. Above the arches is a long text in Latin about monastic life and the importance of the cloister, where the monks studied, read and prayed.
From the cloister, you should be able to spot the campanile (see the second image of this post). It has a rather strange position, as it was built directly behind the apse of the church. This is not the original campanile. A bell-tower was added to the church in the eleventh or twelfth century, but it was destroyed when an earthquake hit Rome in 1349. The ruling pope at that time was Clemens VI (1342-1352), who was residing in Avignon in France. Still, the basilica back in Rome was important enough for Clemens to order the construction of a new campanile. Although this structure seems to have survived the 1823 fire, it was demolished nonetheless and replaced with the current tower, erected between 1840 and 1860.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 267;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 252-253;
- San Paolo fuori le Mura on Churches of Rome Wiki.
Update 6 March 2022: images have been improved.
 It was however built by Carlo Rainaldi.
 In full: “Agmina sacra regit locus hic quem splendor honorat. Hic studet atque legit monachorum cetus et orat. Claustrales claudens claustrum de claudo vocatur. Cum Christo gaudens fratrum pia turma seratur. Hoc opus exterius pre cunctis pollet in Urbe. Hic nitet interius monachalis regula turbe. Claustri per girum decus auro stat decoratum materiam mirum precellit materiatum. Hoc opus arte sua quem Roma cardo beavit natus de Capua Petrus olim Primitiavit. Ardea quem genuit quibus abbas vixit in annis cetera disposuit bene provida dextra Johannis”.