Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls

Written by Patryk Solik

First year Seminarian for the Archdiocese of Glasgow

December 21, 2022

The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls is one of the four major papal basilicas in Rome. It is dedicated to Apostle Paul who was martyred in Rome between 64 and 68 AD and was built over his tomb.  Even though it is located outside of Rome’s city centre, it is an important place of interest for thousands of pilgrims and visitors.

The first basilica on the spot of Paul’s burial was built in 324 at the order of emperor Constantine. Over the ages, it has undergone numerous redevelopments, expansions and repairs. Due to its location outside of the city walls, it was an easy target for any army attacking the city. It was the largest of all papal basilicas until the completion of St Peter’s Basilica in 1626. The most recent fire in 1823 completely destroyed the basilica. The reconstruction programme lasted 30 years and managed to return the building to its previous state. The funding and materials for the reconstruction were donated by Catholics from around the world. At the order of pope Leo XII, the basilica was restored in an almost unchanged shape and style. 

Before entering the building, all visitors pass through a portico with a statue of the Apostle. From there we can appreciate the facade with a golden mosaic of the Old Testament prophets, 12 lambs symbolising the apostles and Christ seated on the throne. From there we move inside. The basilica has one nave, and four aisles on the sides.  There are no pews in the main nave which makes the interior look even more spacious. 

In the central part of the church, there is a triumphal arch with a mosaic inspired by the book of Revelation. It spans the main altar, which is built right above the sarcophagus of St. Paul.   

Behind the altar, we can see a mosaic in the apse of the basilica. It was crafted by Venetian artists and is very similar to those in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. It miraculously survived the fire of 1823. The main figure in the depiction is Christ sitting on his throne, surrounded by Peter and Andrew, Paul and Luke. The remaining apostles are shown below Christ. 

The building is full of architectural details. The windows are filled with alabaster panels instead of glass, which gives the interior a very unique look. The spaces between the windows are decorated with various scenes from the life and mission of St Paul. 

The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls is famous for the mosaics depicting all the popes of the Church. The original paintings were lost during the fire, but during the reconstructions, they were replaced with mosaics representing all the popes starting with St. Peter and going up to pope Francis. This helps all the faithful to visualise the two millennia of Church history. The portraits start in the transept of the basilica, fill the main nave, the left side aisle and almost the whole right aisle. The “contemporary” popes whom most of us remember and recognise are only the very few last ones.

Although the Basilica is remote from the main tourist attractions in Rome, it is worth visiting because it is a real gem among all of the churches Rome has to offer. If you wish to see it without moving away from your home, you can see the Virtual Reality Tour available on the Vatican website.