One of the most interesting churches to visit in Rome is the basilica of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura (St. Paul Outside The Walls). Its unique history and place as one of the four great basilicas of Rome make it a definite stop on any visit to Rome. Religion aside, the building is an architectural marvel not only for its grandeur, but also for its endurance in surviving the test of time as well as a fire in 1823, which completely destroyed the church, possibly started accidentally by workers contracted to repair the roof.
The outside of the basilica is richly decorated in a mosaic between 1854 and 1874 and attributed to the Studio Vaticano.
Art historians attribute the artistic program to cartoons or cartoni (preparatory drawings done paintings, frescoes or mosaics are begun) to Filippo Agricola and Nicola Consoni. Starting from the top and working your way down, there is Christ as an angel seated between Saints Peter (who is seen holding a key) and Paul (to whom the basilica is dedicated). Beneath that is a scene of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, two holy cities that have an obvious connection to the church. Under the scene of Jerusalem are three large windows. Between the windows are mosaics of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.
A statute of Saint Paul stands in front of the facade of the church in the main courtyard.
The interior of the church is also remarkable, especially for the apse mosaics and badalcchino, which were installed around Middle Ages, around 1220 and 1285, respectively. The famous medieval artist, Pietro Cavallini (his handiwork can be seen on the inside of the arch) worked on mosaics in this church along with other artists, who were adept at rendering the Byzantine style of the east. The baldacchino, free-standing canopy supported by columns symbolically sheltering an altar, throne, or tomb, is ornate and richly decorated. It features various scenes of the bible, as well as statues of Saints Peter and Paul. The baldacchino and the original mosaics are both from the Middle Ages and are excellent speciments that demonstrate the prevailing and dominant styles in Rome during that time.
The basilica also has some interest chapels, which I will discuss at a later date. Chapels, during the Middles Ages and beyond, were often decorated by the commissions of prominent families and often times these decorations served more than their own religious devotion, with fresco programs designed to accentuate and embellish the patron’s importance while at the same time preserving and showing all their devotion.
The basilica represents various artistic styles — on the exterior you see the architectural styles of the late 19th century, which represent the church after it was rebuilt from the fire. The interior displays the artistic splendors of the Middle Ages as well as the Renaissance, Baroque and beyond. The mixture of these various artistic styles demonstrates not only Italy’s architectural and artistic richness, but also the Church’s dedication to preserving this church for its liturgical and historical value.
Many of the best sources on the churches of Rome are, unfortunately, in Italian. Luckily, many of them have been translated into English. One such source is Robert Vicchi’s Le basiliche maggiori di Roma : San Pietro, San Giovanni in Laterano, San Paolo fuori le Mura, Santa Maria Maggiore (1999). The book was translated into English and published by Scala in 1999, most probably for the Jubilee (ISBN: 8881172666). Vicchi presents a concise and informative summary of the four major basilicas along with some excellent photos.
Anyone unable to find this book in a library near them would also have excellent luck with this wiki on Roman churches, which features an excellent article on the basilica.
The basilica can be located here in Rome:
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