Friday, July 1, 2016

San Paolo Fuori le Mura (2)

Today's photos:

1. An overall view of the interior of the basilica.

2. Massive granite columns separate the aisles.

3. In the center of the ceiling is the coat of arms of Pius IX.

4. The triumphal arch.

5. The ciborium (canopy) over the altar.

6. The sarcophagus behind the metal grate holds the remains of Paul.

7. Looking down on the "confessio" and tomb of Paul.

8. The apse mosaic.

9. A curious holy water font.

10. Papa Francesco!


The interior of the basilica is impressive (photo 1), with forty soaring granite columns on both sides, down the full length of the main aisle, separating it from two side aisles on either side (photo 2). Huge niches along the walls hold statues of the twelve apostles. The ceiling (photo 3) is beautifully decorated, in the center of which is the coat of arms of Pius IX (1846-1878) who dedicated the rebuilt church in 1854. Colossal statues of Peter and Paul, patron saints of Rome, stand on either side of the sanctuary (photo 1).


When you enter the basilica, your eyes are almost immediately drawn to the triumphal arch (photos 1 & 4) which rises majestically in front of, and high above the sanctuary as if an entrance into it. The arch, which survived the fire of 1823, is supported by two enormous monolithic columns of gray granite.

A curiosity

These two columns are not ancient Roman material; they date from the 19th century. Their "claim to fame", so to speak, is that they are the largest columns hewed and carved since the time of the Roman empire.

The face of the arch is dominated in the center by an unusually severe face of Christ which can literally strike fear into the beholder, despite his "out of proportion" arms. It is humbling to think that this is the same face which has looked down on worshipers since the time of Pope Leo the Great (440-461).


Rising above the main altar is a beautiful ciborium, or canopy, created by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1285 (photo 5). It is supported by four porphyry columns crowned by gilded capitals. When seen from the entrance door, the ciborium seems small and insignificant in the great open space, but as you approach it, especially diagonally, you will appreciate its great size and majesty.

Steps lead down to what is the most revered part of the basilica, the tomb of St. Paul. These steps bring you into a space called the "confessio" (photos 6 & 7), a place for the burial of martyrs who "confessed" or "testified" to their faith. As you stand in this area, directly in front of you is a metal grate behind which is the sarcophagus which holds the remains of Paul. All you can see of it is the central portion of one side of the sarcophagus.

The old stone you see illuminated in front of the metal grate is part of the tomb. Above the grate is a reliquary which holds several links of the chains which bound Paul when he was imprisoned in Rome.

A curiosity

Paul's incarceration in Rome was during the early sixties of the first century. The chain links displayed here are believed to be from the chains which bound him to the Roman soldier who was guarding him in what was probably a kind of house-arrest. Atop the reliquary the artist has depicted Paul in chains between two Roman soldiers.

The area of the "confessio" is also illuminated by a perpetually burning oil lamp, the only light in the basilica which burns day and night. It really succeeds in giving the environment a haunting, evocative feeling. The tradition of an oil lamp in this area goes back at least to the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604).


At the extreme east end of the basilica is the magnificent apse mosaic (photo 8), another survivor of the fire. Although it needed to be restored, it is essentially the original mosaic made during the pontificate of Honorius III (1216-1227). The scene is dominated by the figure of Christ in glory on his throne. Paul stands to the right of Christ and next to him is his faithful friend, St. Luke ("only Luke is with me"). On Christ's left we see Peter and his brother Andrew. The twelve apostles are depicted in a row below these five figures.

A curiosity

This is the largest apse mosaic in Rome. You must be close to it in order to appreciate its great size. Just to give you a point of reference, the figures of the twelve apostles are about twelve feet in height; and we can see that the figure of Christ is much larger.


There are four small chapels along the back wall of the basilica, two on either side of the apse. On your left as you face the apse is the Chapel of St. Stephen, the first martyr, which has a painting of the stoning of the saint. Remember from the preceding post that Paul (Saul) was present at the martyrdom.

Next to this is the Chapel of the Crucifix, now known as the Blessed Sacrament chapel; it is the only one of the four chapels which survived the fire.

A curiosity

It was in this chapel in 1541 that St. Ignatius of Loyola and his fellow Jesuits took their oath which formally marked the beginning of their religious order, the Society of Jesus.

On the other side of the apse is the Chapel of St. Lawrence, also known as the Chapel of the Choir because it contains beautiful wooden choir stalls from the nineteenth century.

The fourth chapel is dedicated to St. Benedict, a statue of whom stands above the altar. No surprise that Benedict is represented in the basilica because the Benedictines have been here for well over a thousand years.


Just outside this chapel is a very interesting and unusual sculpture of a holy water font (photo 9). Unusual because one of the two personages depicted on it is the devil. The work was created in the 19th century by the Roman artist Pietro Galli (1804-1877) for a pious noblewoman who gave the statue to Pius IX in 1860. A young girl is represented as she stretches her hand up to touch the holy water. The devil is portrayed below as a young, muscular man crouching with fear and covering his face.

A curiosity

The previous abbot of the monastery, Cesario D'Amato (1904-2000) suggested that the partially hidden face of the devil was modeled on that of Victor Emanuel II (1820-1878), the first king of Italy and an enemy of the papacy!


Perhaps one of the most popular items in the basilica is the long row of mosaic portraits of the popes, from Peter to Francis. They are located high up along the walls and above the columns in the aisles and in the transept.

This interesting custom of installing these circular mosaic portraits was begun in the fifth century during the pontificate of Pope Leo the Great. Some of the original portraits survived the fire; they were saved and mounted in the monastery in 1870. So all the portraits seen in the basilica were made after 1823.

A curiosity

The portrait of Gregory the Great is among the group in the transept, above the chapel of St. Stephen. Gregory, a doctor of the church, is recognized by a dove which whispers in his ear, indicating inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It was Gregory who, in 604, gave the first written evidence of a monastery at St. Paul's.

The portrait which I like the best is the latest one: Papa Francesco (photo 10). Most of the others, especially the early ones, seem to be stern, angry-looking old men, but Francesco has a faint smile and what appears to me like an almost mischievous twinkle in his eyes, as if he were up to something which he is keeping secret from us! I think the artist captured perfectly this pontiff's jovial, friendly personality.

A curiosity

There are about 20 blank circles waiting to be filled in. What will happen when the next 20 popes come along and there are no circles left? According to one legend, that is when the world will come to an end! 


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