Of ancient foundation, the Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura (Papal Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls) stands on the site of what is believed to be the burial place of St Paul. On the night of July 15th 1823, the church was largely destroyed by a fire, which broke out in the roof. Pope Leo XII (r. 1823-28) ordered its immediate reconstruction, which took thirty years. In plan and dimensions, if not in spirit, the new basilica is a replica of the original church.
San Paolo is preceded by a great quadriporticus made up of 146 monolithic granite columns. The capitals of the columns in front of the church sport the head of St Paul. The colossal statue of the saint is the work of Giuseppe Obici (1807-78). St Paul holds aloft a sword, by means of which he was beheaded. The pedestal proclaims: PREDICATORI VERITATIS DOCTORI GENTIVM (To the preacher of the truth, to the teacher of the Gentiles).
The mosaics on the facade were created between 1854 and 1876. Christ sits between St Peter and St Paul. Below is the Lamb of God on the mountain of Paradise. The four rivers flowing from it symbolise the gospels, and the twelve lambs drinking from the rivers symbolise the Apostles. The cities to either side are Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The lowest section shows the Old Testament Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.
The church has five doors. The central door (1931) is the work of Antonio Maraini (1886-1963). The twelve bronze reliefs depict scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul. To either side of the door are statues of the two saints, the work of Gregorio Zappalà (1833-1908).
To the right of the main door is the Porta Santa (Holy Door), which is only open during Holy Years. It was executed by Enrico Manfrini (1917-2004) and installed in the Holy Year or Jubilee of 2000. On the inside of the dooris the Porta Bizantina, which was created in 1070 and is made up of 54 panels inlaid with silver.
To the left of the main door is the Porta Paolina, with bronze reliefs by Guido Veroi (1926-2013).
The nave and four aisles are made up of eighty granite columns. The splendid wooden ceiling sports the coat of arms of Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-78). The paintings between the windows, in the upper part of the nave, depict scenes from the life of St Paul (the cycle begins in the transept with the Martyrdom of St Stephen). Under the paintings are portraits in mosaic of all the popes from St Peter to the present day.
The triumphal arch, a relic of the old church, sports much-restored mosaics. A somewhat grim-faced Christ makes a blessing in the Greek manner. The inscription proclaims: TEODOSIVS CEPIT PERFECIT ONORIVS AVLAM DOCTORIS MVNDI SACRATAM CORPORE PAVLI (Theodosius started the church, Honorius completed it. It is made sacred by the body of Paul the teacher of the world).
The confessio, which is below the high altar, is the most sacred spot in the basilica, as it is the nearest one can get to the actual tomb of St Paul. The confessio is reached by a double staircase. The beautiful gothic canopy (1285) over the high altar is the signed work of Arnolfo di Cambio. He was assisted by a colleague named simply as Petro ('cum suo socio Petro'), who has been identified as Pietro di Oderisio.
The 12th century paschal candlestick, which stands to the right of the high altar, has been attributed to Nicola D'Angelo and Pietro Vassalletto.
The mosaic in the apse was commissioned by Pope Honorius (r. 1216-27), who appears as the tiny figure genuflecting at the feet of Christ. Christ is flanked on his right side by St Paul and St Luke and on his left by St Peter and St Andrew. Beneath him is a throne with the instruments of the Passion and a jewelled cross. This is known as the etimasia, the throne prepared for the Second Coming.
The beautiful 13th century cloistersurvived the fire and should not be missed.
The bell-tower, which rather resembles a lighthouse, was designed by the architect Luigi Poletti (1792-1869). Poletti also designed what is known as the Gregorian Portico on the north side of the basilica. Built during the reign of Pope Gregory XVI (r. 1831-46), it incorporates 12 marble columns from the old basilica. The statue of Pope Gregory XVI is by Rinaldo Rinaldi (1793-1873), a pupil of Antonio Canova.