When Pope John Paul II opened the Holy Door at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (San Paolo fuori le Mura) in January, he looked down the nearly 400-foot nave to the altar that covers the tomb of Saint Paul, whose grave has been preserved, perhaps miraculously, through the centuries. Now St. Paul's is one of the basilicas that enjoys the status of “extraterritoriality,” a mini-enclave of the Holy See in the city of Rome. The enormous basilica can be formidable on gray days, as are all great spaces in (often) poorly lighted Rome, but the Jubilee has brought a new glow, in tribute to Paul, the great convert and indefatigable evangelist.
If you take a New Testament with you, you may find a quiet place to read Paul's letters to the struggling cells of Christianity, ever praising and cajoling. The basilica's cloisters are glorious, fortunately protected from a catastrophic fire, an ideal place for God's word on a golden Roman morning.
Although Paul is often depicted (especially by Caravaggio) as a large, muscular man, according to at least one second-century writer, he had “a bald head and crooked legs, his nose somewhat crooked, his eyebrows meeting, but his face full of friendliness … for now he appeared as a man, and now he had the face of an angel.”
Among Paul's friends in Rome, legend has it, was a Christian woman named Lucina, who had Paul buried on her family property along the Ostian Way. His grave, marked by a memorial, was venerated immediately by early Christians and became through the years a place of pilgrimage. Emperor Constantine, constructing a church for St. Paul in Rome (386), as he had for St. Peter at the Vatican, was careful to enclose the saint's remains in a bronze-covered block that was temporarily moved to the catacombs until his tomb was ready. An altar was then built above the grave.
Through centuries of looting and abandonment, the tomb was lost and forgotten. It took a tragedy to return it to us. In the 19th century, a terrible fire devastated the cathedral. During subsequent reconstruction, the tomb of Paul came to light, set amid many graves of those who had wanted to be near him, their heads always placed toward him, like spokes radiating from Paul, their center. The plaque that Constantine had affixed to Paul's tomb, beneath the papal altar, may be seen today with a guide. Lights glow around the staircase you'll descend to see the words Paolo Apostolo Mart. (to Paul, apostle, martyr).
Pope Sylvester consecrated the basilica during the fourth century. Then a triumvirate of emperors held power and it was called the Basilica of the Three Emperors, or of Theodosius, since he was the most powerful of the three.
Constantine's church was much smaller than the one we see, but popes and emperors added extensions and embellishments. During the Middle Ages, St. Paul's was the largest church in Christendom and remained so until St. Peter's Renaissance rebuilding. St. Paul's originally occupied an important position, on the Tiber River near ancient Rome's port at Ostia, and such popes as Leo the Great and Gregory the Great contributed handsomely to its splendor and surrounding land. During the 9th century, however, Saracens attacked the sanctuary and later Pope John (Giovanni) VIII made it the center of his fortified town, called Giovannopolis.
“a bald head and crooked legs, his nose somewhat crooked, his eyebrows meeting, but his face full of friendliness”
But when the Abbot of Cluny in France, author of the Benedictine reforms, visited in 936 he found it in ruins and the monks dispersed. As Pope Otto I, he restored St. Paul's. Then, under Pope Gregory VII, a great deal of land was added. When the popes returned from Avignon, the politics of Italy had changed and St. Paul's became a center for studies, not a state basilica.
No assault was as devastating as the fire of 1823, apparently accidentally set by a workman on the roof. Pope Pius VII, who had fond memories of St. Paul's, where he had been a monk, at that moment lay on his deathbed and could not even be told of it for fear of shock. In his dreams a disturbing vision of St. Paul's had appeared, but he died the next day not knowing. The fire was a catastrophe that the world responded to: the Khedive of Egypt sent enormous alabaster columns; Czar Nicholas contributed malachite and lapis lazuli; collections were taken everywhere.
Unfortunately, the rebuilt facade is an awkward blend of columns and mosaics that are not what one would expect in a city where mosaics were a celebrated art form. The palm trees (to make us think of Jerusalem) and the statue of St. Paul don't help the harmony.
However, the ancient bronze doors (the Holy Door) were saved and recently restored with their panels of Biblical scenes: the doors were forged in Constantinople in 1070, back when the Normans had just conquered England.
Once inside, especially when sunlight streams from the high, early-basilica-style windows, the church shows its ancient splendor. We look down the nave of 80 tall columns of granite, “reflected on a marble floor, like trees at the edge of a lake,” according to the late H. V. Morton, the beloved Catholic travel writer. Above the columns, lunettes (round medallions) picture the popes from St. Peter to John Paul II. The walls above were once covered with 13th-century frescoes by Pietro Cavallini, which were destroyed in the fire.
The triumphal arch shows the Salvatore benedicente (the Savior blessing) between adoring angels, while winged symbols of the evangelists and 24 Elders of the Apocalypse look on, with Sts. Peter and Paul below. The Blessed Sacrament Chapel, left of the apse, was designed by Carlo Maderno, famous for his facade of St. Peter's. A statue that survived the fire, St. Bridget of Sweden, celebrates the saint who was recently named one of the Patronesses of Europe. The Crucifix, perhaps by the great Cavallini, in legend spoke to St. Bridget.
Beyond the arch stands the brilliant ciborium (canopy) above the papal altar over St. Paul's tomb. Stairs and rows of lights lead down to the saint's crypt, which may be visited with a guide. The ciborium is a masterpiece by Arnolfo di Cambio (1285), its top of Gothic spires and base of classical columns elegantly combining the two styles. A few centuries later, St. Ignatius Loyola stood here and formally founded the Society of Jesus.
The huge (17-foot) paschal candlestick is a curiosity, bedecked with strange animals with human heads, apparently signifying the triumph of Christian thought over animal passions. Women are seen strangling them (the passions, we assume). Odd vegetation entwines. Then it rises into a story of the Passion. At top are a series of monsters. The candlestick dates from the 12th century, when art often depicted a scary life. The more you look at it, the odder it seems.
The mosaics of the apse are wonderful, though only partially restored. Christ judges from his throne surrounded by disciples and angels with a tiny version of Pope Honorius III (1216-26) at his feet; he commissioned it.
In a chapel off the sacristy, the legendary chains that bound St. Paul are kept, and “exposed” twice a year, on January 25, anniversary of his conversion, and on June 30, dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul (a holiday in Rome).
Now to the cloisters, where a warm sun is sure to attract some locals. Built from 1193 to 1226, this elegant court blends Romanesque and Gothic elements.
Each twisting column is different: some have winding bands of mosaics, some with fluted marble; some are plain. If you visit between April and November, you'll see greenery, something not that easy to come by in Rome. Some of the gravestones brought here after the fire survived from pre-Reformation times in Europe, when England's royals were patrons and protectors of St. Paul's, as France's kings were of the basilica of St. John Lateran, and Spanish kings of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Before you leave St. Paul's, stop in the biblioteca (library) to see the codex paulinus, an illuminated 8th-century manuscript of Charlemagne's time — one of Rome's countless treasures connecting present-day pilgrims with the brothers and sisters in Christ who preceded us.
Barbara Coeyman Hults, a former resident of Rome, is based in New York.