St Paul Outside the Walls


In this article, we conclude our series on Papal Basilicas with a look at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. The name of this Basilica is interesting. The first part, “St. Paul’s”, is straightforward. This Basilica was built to honour St. Paul and houses his physical remains, which are found in a sarcophagus beneath the altar. For almost 2000 years, this sarcophagus was hidden from view. Just after the Jubilee in 2000, the area under the altar was excavated in order to expose the sarcophagus. At this time, it was not opened, so we are not sure what is inside. However, long tradition has it that St. Paul’s body is inside, with the exception of his head, which according to another tradition is in St. John Lateran. The second part of the Basilica’s name, “Outside the Walls”, is less clear. Ultimately, it means that this Basilica was built outside the walls of the ancient city of Rome. The reason for this is that in ancient Rome bodies were not buried within the city limits. The city was for the living. The dead needed to be deposited in their own place, called a necropolis, which literally means “city of the dead”. For example, the place where St. Peter’s Basilica now stands was originally a necropolis in which St. Peter was buried. Though today St. Peter’s seems like a part of Rome, 2000 years ago this was considered outside the city limits since it was on the other side of the Tiber river. Similar to St. Peter, St. Paul was buried close to where he was martyred in a place specially designated for the dead outside the city boundaries. In the 4th century, Constantine build a Basilica over St. Paul’s burial place. Since this was outside the city walls, the name stuck.

The Basilica built by Constantine was soon expanded by Theodosius in the year 386. This structure remained substantially unchanged for almost 1500 years. For centuries, it was the only Papal Basilica that had maintained its ancient design as the others were significantly altered, or, in the case of St. Peter’s, completely rebuilt. In 1823, however, a worker fixing the roof of St. Paul’s set a fire which almost completely destroyed the building. Pope Leo XII ordered that the Basilica be rebuilt according to its original design, utilizing as many elements that had survived the fire as possible. This is why when visiting St. Paul’s one gets the feeling that one is in an ancient Roman Basilica, even though the structure itself is relatively recent. In addition to housing the body of St. Paul, the Basilica also is home to magnificent mosaics, notably the mosaic of Christ over the triumphal arch, which survived the fire and dates from the 5th century. A detail of the Basilica that is popular among pilgrims is the series of mosaics showing each of the Popes, which wraps around the Basilica’s interior. The translucent alabaster windows further enhance the space’s beauty.  This Basilica is truly a wonderful place to visit and contemplate the life of St. Paul the Apostle, who was beheaded just a few kilometers away.