Treasures of the Church - Holy Sites

Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls of Rome


After St. Peter’s, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls is the largest Church in Rome. It is impressive and monumental. Due to the extensive space which separates the surrounding buildings, it stands out more.

It was built during the first half of the 4th century at the request of Emperor Constantine, precisely in the same place where tradition shows the burial place of the Apostle Paul.

During this same century, it was reconstructed in a more solemn and majestic way. This Basilica has always been an unceasing objective of all the pilgrims and faithful who come from all over the world to venerate the "Apostle of the Gentiles", who with his words and writings, during the first years of the life of the Church contributed to spreading the Christian message in a definitive way.

In 1300, towards the end of the Holy Year, the Basilica was included in the Jubilee itinerary to gain indulgences. Towards the beginnings of the XIX century, the Basilica was left practically intact in its extraordinary aspect suggestive of an early Christian patriarchal temple. It was almost completely destroyed in 1823 by a great fire, started through the negligence of some workmen who were repairing the roof. Pope Leo XIII had the arduous task of beginning the restoration of the Basilica.

Under the Pontificate of Pius IX, the work actively continued, and on December 10th, 1854, He consecrated the new Basilica.

To access the main entrance to the Basilica of Saint Paul, you go through an atrium preceded by a garden, it is done in the same way as it was done in the past. The atrium with its 70 meters on the side and its 150 columns is more solemn and spacious. In the center of the garden, between flowers and palm trees, there is a striking and dramatic statue of Saint Paul, work of Giuseppe Obici. The apostle holds in his hand a sword, symbol of his martyrdom, and on the other hand, the book which symbolizes his mission as the Messenger of the Word of God, both proclaimed and written. In a special way, Paul is the apostle who is credited for the diffusion of the Christian faith in the Greek-Roman world.

His letters and the biblical texts in the "Acts of the Apostles" provide us with abounding news about his life, his thinking and his mission. None of the apostles have such a documented existence as the one Saint Paul has.

Approximately in the year 10 of the Christian era, Paul was born in Tarsus, the capital city of Cilicia (presently known as Turkey). In the beginning, he was a convinced persecutor of the young Church. He was converted to Christ, who appeared to him on the road to Damascus, then he was transformed into the most determined messenger of the Christian faith. His preaching took him to Cyprus, Panfilia, Pisidia and Lycaonia. Tradition shows that Saint Paul died decapitated in Rome approximately in the year 67.

Today, the relics of this holy martyr of Christ are venerated in the Crypt of the Basilica which is dedicated to him.

The Doors
In the Church’s Liturgy, the door not only has a functional value, but also a symbolic one. In the Gospel, Christ used to define Himself as the “door”, through which you could find “fertile meadows", in a clear reference of life which continues after death: " I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. “(John 10:9).

This is the reason why the church doors were and are frequently beautified with low relief, with some artworks of greatest artists, lovely from an aesthetic point of view, but also functional for the understanding of the meaning of the door in the Christian system of symbols. Out of the three doors of the Basilica facing the lobby, the most important one and the most ancient one is the one on the right hand side, which is facing the front. It is simply known as the “Byzantine Door” because of its indisputable style with which it was made. Originally, this was the main door of the Basilica, but with the reconstruction made after the fire in the XIX century, it was placed where it is presently located to close the Holy Door in the year 1967.

The panels made in bronze, starting from the top, narrates the life of Christ from Christmas until Pentecost, followed by the images of the prophets and the apostles. This door, which is considered one of the most beautiful one of its kind, is credited to Theodore of Constantinople as its author who lived in the XI century.

The Interior of the Basilica
The sensation of huge spaces and greatness of the interior of one of the great ancient basilicas in the world comes from the symmetrical proportions of the 80 columns of white marble and from the reflection of the floor. The actual church, just as the old one has five naves and a floor, which in respect to the primitive times, it was enhanced or raised close to 90 centimeters. The pavement was first placed in the crossvault, also using the lovely marbles of tombstone of the old Basilica, and then in the naves, alternating paving stones of green marbles and red granite. This gives the Church a great brightness sensation. In the most ancient part of the Basilica, well re-touched and restored, there only remains the interior portion of the apse with the triumphal arch. In the lower section of this, above the basements of marble, they have placed the statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. In the central part of the luxuriant ceiling, the coat of arms of the Popes can be seen. Underneath, in between the windows, bordered by false columns with Corinthian architecture, the 36 frescos alternate which represent diverse episodes in the life of Saint Paul ordered by Pius IX in the year 1857.

The Portraits of the Popes
Below the windows of the central nave and in the lateral naves, surrounding the huge worship space, the mosaic portraits of all the Popes can be seen, beginning with Saint Peter until today.

When a pope dies, the custom is to update the portraits by adding one of the newly elected one. The series of portraits was started by Pope Leo the Great (440-461). From those antique portraits of frescos, only 41 could be saved and today they are kept in the Basilica’s museum.

In 1847, Pius IX began the restoration of the series, this time was done in mosaics instead of frescos. In order to make mosaic portraits, it was necessary to make samples of oil painting. This work was spearheaded by the Director of Mosaic Studies of the Vatican, Mr. Felipe Agricola.

Besides their undoubted value of iconography investigation, the portraits of the Popes in the Basilica of Saint Paul respond to important theological and historical demands. More so because of the dates of their diverse pontificates, but also because of the need to make evident the apostolic succession beginning with Peter until the last living pope.

Virtual Tour of the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls...