Rome, S Paolo fuori le mura

Also known as St Paul's outside the walls
Era 5AD - 13AD
Location Piazzale San Paolo, 1, 00146 Roma RM, Italy

The great church of S Paolo fuori le mura was destroyed by fire in 1823; what you see now is a rebuilding in imitation of the old. S Paolo began life as one of the oldest of all Roman churches, built in the time of Constantine over the site where Paul had supposedly been martyred and buried. His grave is supposed to be below the altar. In c383, the emperors Theodosios, Valentinian II and Arkadios began the rebuilding of S Paolo fuori le mura, completed at some point between 395 and 423 by the emperor Honorius and his sister Galla Placidia. This work turned it into the biggest church in Rome until the rebuilding of St Peter’s in the sixteenth century. It was over 128 m long and 65m wide, and was presumably as, if not more, elaborately decorated than St Peter’s. Now it’s a great echoing barn of a place, popular mostly with pilgrims.

The surviving mosaics have all been heavily restored after the fire. It is likely that there was a fourth-century mosaic in the apse and on the triumphal arch, one that may have had a theme of the people of Rome as the people of God. That in the apse now is thirteenth-century; those of the triumphal arch were replaced by Galla Placidia in the mid-fifth century, restoring those destroyed in a fire. . The façade mosaics were also thirteenth century but are now nineteenth century.

Fifth-century mosaics The mosaics of the Triumphal arch were Galla’s and Honorius’s work. The Liber Pontificalis further records that Pope Leo I (the Great) also played a part in the restoration of the church after a disastrous fire in 441. The Triumphal arch was heavily and horribly restored in the nineteenth century; scholars tend to think these nineteenth-century mosaics replicate the earlier ones. If so, then they appear to have had a bust of Christ at the top, flanked by the four apocalyptic creatures or symbols of the evangelists (Matthew = man; Mark = lion; Luke = ox; John = eagle). Below this, the twenty-four elders of the Book of Revelations offered up their crowns; Peter and Paul were located in a register below at the starting point of the arch. Painted rather than mosaicked scenes ran the length of the nave, with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, from Creation and God’s Covenant with his Chosen to the Life of Christ and the Missions of Peter and Paul, reminding viewers of both of God’s plan for the world and of Rome’s place at the centre of that plan. Apostles and prophets filled the window spaces, and tondi of popes from Peter to Leo himself formed the lowest level.

Thirteenth-century mosaics Pope Honorius III (1216-27) refurbished the fifth-century mosaics on the Triumphal arch and also in the apse. Although the apse mosaic now is nineteenth century, it is believed to copy the thirteenth-century image. It depicts an enthroned Christ, blessing with Paul and Luke to the viewer’s left and Peter and Andrew to our right. A small figure, identified through an inscription as Pope Honorius, kisses Christ’s right foot. The original facade mosaic may also date to this early thirteenth century period.

In January 1218 Pope Honorius wrote a letter to the Venetian doge, Ziani, in which he thanked him for having sent a mosaicist to S Paolo fuori le mura and asked for two more. Quite how the letter should be interpreted is debatable. It may reflect a shortage of Roman mosaic artists, though in light of the sheer quantity of Roman mosaic in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it seems unlikely that the letter proves that there were no mosaicists in Rome. Perhaps there was a shortage of mosaicists for the volume of work available. Perhaps it is an example of what was so much a feature later in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when patrons, including popes, regularly employed artists from elsewhere because they were perceived as better or different to or more fashionable than the artists to hand.

Odd fragments A head of St Peter (restored) is now in the Vatican Grottoes The remains of a three-quarter length small panel of the Virgin and Child from S Paolo fuori le mura show her dressed in a blue maphorion, like a Byzantine Mother of God, and she and her child hold the Hodegetria pose The mosaic image is labelled as ‘Mother of God’ in Latin. It is usually dated to the twelfth century for no very clear reason.

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