Rome: San Paolo dentro le Mura

San Paolo dentro le Mura or Saint Paul’s within the Walls.

One would almost forget, but Rome of course also has a couple of Protestant churches. The San Paolo dentro le Mura – or Saint Paul’s within the Walls in English – is a particularly spectacular example. The church is alternatively known as the American church. It occupies a prominent spot along the Via Nazionale, and in terms of internal and external decorations it is easily the equal of many Catholic churches. The San Paolo dentro le Mura was the first official Protestant church in Rome. When the city was still ruled by popes, it was utterly unthinkable that non-Catholic churches would ever be erected within the walls of Rome. But then in 1870 Italian troops captured the city from the pope and Rome became the new Italian capital. Now that the Eternal City was part of the Kingdom of Italy, the Statuto Albertino applied, the constitution adopted in 1848. This constitution granted freedom of religion to all residents, and as a consequence the construction of Protestant places of worship was suddenly no longer a problem.


As early as 1859 the American pastor William Chauncey Langdon travelled to Rome to found a Protestant congregation there. It belonged to the Episcopal Church and was known as Grace Church. In 1860 Langdon became the congregation’s first Rector. Six years later a granary outside the Porta del Popolo – and so outside the city walls – was converted into a church building. Shortly after the 1870 capture of Rome it was decided to make use of the newly won freedom of religion and build a proper church. First, the name Grace Church was changed to Saint Paul’s within the Walls. Then in 1872 land was purchased within these walls. The location where the church would arise was both prominent and symbolic. The Via Nazionale clearly referred to the new Italy and the new Rome. The old name of the road, the Via Pia, fell into oblivion. As the old name referred to Pope Pius IX, this name change was quite telling.

Interior of the church.

November of 1872 saw the ground-breaking ceremony and then on 25 January 1873 the foundation stone of the Saint Paul’s within the Walls was laid. That date was chosen for a reason: on 25 January the conversion of Saint Paul is celebrated (when he was still a Pharisee named Saul he had fanatically persecuted Christians). The architect of the new church was an Englishman, George Edmund Street (1824-1881), who executed the building in the then popular neo-Gothic style. The Saint Paul’s within the Walls was consecrated in 1876, but the building was only completed in 1880, just before Street’s death. The most important decorations of the church, however, still had to be made. This job was entrusted by Street to his fellow Englishman Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). It was then decided that the Saint Paul’s within the Walls was to be provided with beautiful mosaics. When designing these mosaics, Burne-Jones was said to have been inspired by the mosaics of Ravenna, which were already world-famous back then. Inside and outside the church we also find mosaics made by the American George William Breck (1863-1920). The building has splendid stained glass windows as well.

Mosaics by Burne-Jones

According to the website of Saint Paul’s “the mosaics in the apse and the choir are the glory of St. Paul’s and are of such recognized value artistically that the Church has been designated a National Monument by the Italian Government”. Burne-Jones undeniably did an excellent job, although it should be noted that he never travelled to Italy and so was only marginally involved in the execution of his designs. The little tesserae for the mosaics were made in Venice and Burne-Jones sent his assistant Thomas Rooke (1842-1942) to Rome to supervise the work there. The last mosaics were not completed until well after Burne-Jones’s death.

Mosaics of the apse.

The first mosaic that visitors see, is the one on the triumphal arch. It represents the Annunciation, which in this case is set in the desert. Mary has just fetched water (see her jug on the ground on the right) and then encounters the archangel Gabriel. An interesting detail is that the angel is hovering: he is clearly holding his feet vertically. On the left the mosaicists have depicted a pelican, a symbol of Christ. In medieval art we frequently see a mother pelican pecking her chest to feed her young with her own blood (examples can be found here and here). On the mosaic on the second arch we see Christ crucified to the Tree of Life or Tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Christ is flanked by Adam, Eve and Cain. Both mosaics date from 1894. They are good, but not as impressive as the mosaics in the apse of the church.

In the conch of the apse we see Christ sitting among the archangels on a throne of cherubs and seraphines. The archangels are Uriel, Michael, Gabriel, Camael and Jophiel. Note the empty spot on Christ’s right. According to the website of the church this was the spot that once belonged to the fallen archangel Lucifer. Below the mosaic we may read the text of Genesis 1:1 written in Hebrew letters (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”). Hebrew is the language of the Old Testament of course, while the New Testament is in Greek. And that is why we see the text of John 1:1 in Greek letters (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”). This mosaic was completed in 1885. The mosaic below it, on the walls of the apse, had to be completed by Rooke after Burne-Jones’s death. The last of the four great mosaics, it was finished in 1907.

Apse mosaics.

This fourth mosaic is by far the most interesting work of the series. Five groups of people have been depicted: ascetics, matrons, church fathers, (female) martyrs and Christian soldiers. Several of these people were given the faces of important religious and political figures from the nineteenth century (a complete list can be found here). The second person to the right of Saint Paul is, for instance, not just Pope Saint Gregorius the Great, but also Archibald Campbell Tait (1811-1882), who served as archbishop of Canterbury between 1868 and 1882. Several of the Christian soldiers can be identified by their shields. They are the patron saints of certain countries. We see Saints George (England), James the Great (Spain), Patrick (Ireland), Andrew (Scotland) and Denis of Paris (France). The faces we see are those of the American general and presidential candidate Winfield Scott Hancock(1824-1886), the Italian freedom fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), the American general and president Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), the American president Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and finally Henry White (1850-1927), a diplomat and the American ambassador in Italy when the mosaic was made. Thomas Rooke depicted himself as the foot soldier, who is in fact the centurion Longinus. The figures on the far right are Père Hyacinthe and the father of the American president Theodore Roosevelt.

Saint Paul and the Church Fathers.

Martyrs and Christian soldiers. The soldier in the middle on horseback is Abraham Lincoln.

Mosaic by Breck above the main entrance.

Other art

George William Breck first of all made the mosaics of the counter-façade. Here we see the adoration of the Christ child by the Magi and shepherds. Above this scene Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Adam in Paradise have been depicted. Breck was also responsible for the mosaic above the main entrance of the church on the Via Nazionale (one by the way usually enters the building through a side entrance). This mosaic represents Paul while living under house arrest in Rome. On the left is the Roman soldier charged with keeping an eye on the apostle, but he appears to be more interested in what Paul has to say. Breck signed the work to the left of the soldier: below the column we read G W BRECK PINXIT 1909. The text below that is CASTAMAN FECIT, which means that, as with Burne-Jones’s mosaics, Breck was only responsible for the design. Castaman was the name of the Venetian mosaicist. The last mosaic made by Breck is that surrounding the rose window, which features the symbols of the four evangelists. Just by looking at the names of the evangelists, which are written in English, we can tell that this is an American church. We see Mat(thew), John, Luke and Mark.

Stained glass windows with the conversion of Saint Paul and the stoning of Saint Stephen.

Lastly, the stained glass windows are well worth a closer look. They were made by the English workshop Clayton and Bell, which continued its activities until 1993. The windows tell the story of the life of Saint Paul, which is obviously appropriate for a church dedicated to him. In this post I have included a picture of the window with the aforementioned conversion of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. A funny little detail is the text next to the hand of God in heaven: “Saule, Saule”. The Lord is really calling out to Paul.

Below the conversion scene is the stoning of Saint Stephen. He is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as a member of the small Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem and as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 6:5). He was accused of blasphemy by some Jews frequenting a local synagogue, “For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us” (Acts 6:14). Stephen was taken prisoner and brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court of law. Stephen’s defence speech caused even more outrage, and he was driven out of the city to be stoned to death. The future apostle Paul was a witness to Stephen’s death by stoning, and according to Acts 8:1 “Saul was consenting unto his death”. A considerable stain on Saint Paul’s reputation.


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