Wednesday, June 1, 2016

San Paolo fuori le mura

Today's photos:

1. The Basilica of St. Paul outside the walls as seen today.

2. Prior to the fire of 1823.

3. The near total destruction caused by the fire.

4. Four of the six panels in the apse bearing the names of ecclesiastical authorities present at the reconsecration of 1854.

5. Part of the quadriporticus.

6. The statue of Paul in the quadriporticus.

7. Only Luke shares the quadriporticus with Paul!

8. The Door of St. Paul.

9. A close-up of the Martyrdom of St. Stephen.

St. Paul outside the walls (San Paolo fuori le mura) is one of the four papal basilicas in Rome, along with St. Peter's, St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major. Just as St. Peter's Basilica is closely associated with the martyrdom and burial of St. Peter, so this one owes its existence to the death and burial of St. Paul.


Both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome, either in 64 or 67 a.d. during the persecutions of Nero. The beheaded body of Paul is said to have been buried by a Roman matron named Lucina in a vineyard which once existed where the basilica now stands. In fact, at the time of Paul's death this area was about 3 miles "outside the walls" of the city in a very peaceful, rural zone, home to several vineyards and gardens.

A curiosity

St. Peter, we know, was crucified according to Roman law. So why was St. Paul not crucified as well? The answer is that Roman law did not allow the crucifixion of Roman citizens, and Paul, unlike Peter, was a legal citizen of Rome. Therefore, he was beheaded, and thus spared the ignominious and painful agony of death by crucifixion. When Paul was arrested he demanded his legal right to appeal to Rome with the words: Civis Romanus sum (I am a Roman citizen).


The emperor Constantine (306-337) arranged that a small basilica be built over the tomb of St. Paul; it was consecrated by Pope Sylvester I on November 18, 324. It is interesting to note that this was exactly two years before St. Peter's was consecrated on November 18, 326. St. Paul's was the second church founded by Constantine, after St. John Lateran. It was enlarged several times over the centuries, the first time by Pope Damasus I (366-384). Major enlargements were carried out in the seventh century by Pope Honorius I (625-638), making the basilica of St. Paul larger than the old St. Peter's.


The basilica we see today seems to be more modern than the other three papal basilicas. The reason for this is that on the night of July 15-16, 1823, it was almost completely destroyed by fire (photo 3). It was Leo XII (1823-1829) who ordered it to be rebuilt "as it was and where it was", respecting almost exactly the dimensions and shape of the previous structure while saving as much of the old basilica as possible.

A curiosity

The fire was the result of the carelessness of a tin worker who, after having repaired some gutters on the roof, forgot to extinguish the fire that he had been using in his repair work. The alarm was sounded during the night by a passing herdsman who saw the flames. Too late, unfortunately, to save the building.


The new basilica was consecrated in 1854 by Pius IX (1846-1878). Present at the solemn ceremony of consecration, along with the Pope, were 50 cardinals, 40 archbishops and 97 bishops from all over the world. Their names are sculpted on six tall marble slabs located below the mosaics, in the lower part of the apse (photo 4).

The main façade of the basilica is now preceded by an enormous quadriporticus with 146 monolithic granite columns, built between 1889 and 1929 (photo 5). A colossal statue of St. Paul carved in white Carrara marble by Giuseppe Obici (1807-1878) stands in the middle of the quadriporticus (photo 6).

A curiosity

An unusual feature about this statue of Paul is that he is depicted with a veil covering his head. This could reflect the Hebrew tradition of praying with the head veiled. But it could also be interpreted in a different way. When Moses came down from the mountain after his encounter with God, his shining head was veiled. So Paul's head is veiled to recall his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. For this reason Paul is sometimes referred to as the new Moses.

You will notice that there are four large pedestals, one in each corner of the quadriporticus. Three of them are empty, while the fourth one holds a statue of St. Luke the evangelist (photo 7). So why is Luke the only one of the four evangelists represented in the quadriporticus with Paul? One reason is that Luke was the author of the Acts of the Apostles in which Paul is an important protagonist. But another interpretation is much more striking. Paul, as we know, was rather querulous and at times ill-tempered. In the second letter of Paul to Timothy we are told that some of the disciples deserted Paul after a disagreement with him. Paul then complains that Luca est mecum solus, "Only Luke is with me" (2 Tim 4:11). And so in the quadriporticus we see Luke alone with Paul!

The frescoes on the façade high above the quadriporticus are from 1885. The central bronze doors are modern (1928-1930), as is the Holy Door on the far right as you face the basilica, built for the Holy Year of 2000. The original Holy Door, however, was first installed in 1070.


The door which I find the most interesting is the one to your left of the center door, the so-called Door of St. Paul (photo 8). It is a modern construction, the work of the Roman artist Guido Veroi who died in 2013. It is almost always closed, but was opened for the Year of St. Paul (2008-2009), proclaimed by Benedict XVI. Four carved panels represent significant events in the life of Paul. At the top left is the Martyrdom of St. Stephen; next to it is the Conversion of Saul. At the bottom left we see the Meeting of Paul with Peter; next to it is the Martyrdom of St. Paul.

A curiosity

You may wonder what the connection is between the martyrdom of St. Stephen and the life of St. Paul. Stephen, a deacon in the Church, was martyred by being stoned to death, the first Christian martyr. This took place before the conversion of Paul, when he was still called Saul and was a persecutor of the Christians. He was actually present, as a witness, at the martyrdom of Stephen. The artist has included him in the scene, as a young man, at the top left of the panel (photo 9). He is shown here holding the cloaks of the three executioners.

In our next post we'll enter the basilica to discover some of its many wonders and curiosities.


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