Basilica Papale San Paolo Fuori le Mure, or Saint Paul Outside the Walls, is one of Rome's most important churches. It is one of the four papal churches along with Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Rome's cathedral of Saint John Lateran, and Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
Constantine had a basilica built above the grave of Saint Paul, marked by a memorial stone in a Roman burial ground two kilometers outside Rome's walls. The original basilica was consecrated in 324. Through the years, the Basilica of Saint Paul continued to be a popular pilgrimage destination and additions to the building made it the largest basilica in Rome until the construction of Saint Peter's Basilica in 1626. In 1823 a fire destroyed the church but it was immediately reconstructed in its original form using all pieces that remained intact and the mosaics on the facade were created. About 100 years later, the entrance portico with 150 columns was added.
In the 13th-century, many artworks were added, including the magnificent mosaic work that dominates the front of the church over the altar. The church's most important relic is a piece of the chain believed to have been used by Saint Paul when he was imprisoned in Rome, on display on a small altar above his tomb.
The Chains That Held Saint Paul
Paul arrived in Rome in 61AD for the trial that sentenced him to death for being a Christian. He was beheaded sometime between 65 to 67AD. The chains believed to have been used to join Paul to the Roman soldier who guarded him have become an important relic. Other relics belonging to the church are displayed in the Chapel of Relics.
Below ground, under the altar that displays the chains, is a marble tombstone bearing the inscription PAULO APOSTOLO MART or Apostle Paul martyr. The tombstone sits above a huge sarcophagus. Recently, an opening was made below the Papal Altar to allow the tomb to be seen.
Romanesque Easter Candle Marble Sculpture
Created in the 12th and 13th centuries by renowned Roman marble sculptors Nicola d'Angelo and Pietro Vassalletto, the huge sculpted Easter candle stand is a masterpiece of Romanesque art. The 5.6-meter tall marble column is divided into eight sections, all decorated with figures either showing Biblical scenes or secular scenes and figures including animals and plants.
Also inside the church is a frieze with mosaic medallion portraits of all the Popes. Four side chapels contain important artworks.
San Paolo Chapel of Relics and Picture Gallery
Just before the entrance to the picture gallery (where photos are not allowed) is the interesting Chapel of Relics that displays some of the church's reliquaries holding relics ranging from fingernails to bone and skull fragments, primarily from Saints or former popes. There is also a piece of wood said to be from the Santa Croce, or sacred cross.
Inside the Picture Gallery are paintings, a display of liturgical vestments and religious objects, and a copy of the 9th century Carolingian Bible.
To see the Chapel of Relics and Picture Gallery, you need to buy a ticket at the biglietteria, ticket booth. The ticket also includes a visit to the beautiful monastery cloister.
The Cloister at Basilica San Paolo
The monastic community at San Paolo dates back to the late 6th century. Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) was originally a monk in this monastery.
Mosaic work and ornate columns decorate the cloister, which can be visited with an admission fee (that also includes the Picture Gallery and Chapel of Relics). In the center is a fountain surrounded by a garden and around the perimeter is a display of Roman sarcophagi and tombstone fragments found during excavations around the Basilica. Part of an excavated necropolis can be seen on the grounds outside the church.
Saint Paul Basilica is on Via Ostiense about two kilometers from Porta San Paolo.
- Getting there: Metro Line B, Basilica San Paolo stop or on Bus 271 or 23.
- Admission: Entrance is free but there is an admission charge to see the picture gallery, chapel of relics, and cloister.
- Audio guides, in English or Italian, can be rented at the ticket window.
- A gift shop sells products from the monastery, books, and religious items.