As I have described in my series on Building A Roman Church, paintings of Christian history abound on the wall of churches. Many of these are scenes from the Stations of the Cross, or the name-sake of that church, or scenes from Old and New Testament passages. When we toured San Paolo Fuori le Mura (Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls), I noticed a series of frescoes along the upper regions of the nave, and around the transept. While I was unsure of all of the scenes, I suspected that they related to Paul in some way.
I took a few extra minutes to go about and photograph each fresco, with the idea that when I returned home I might investigate their origin and themes. There turned out to be 36 frescos, 33 of which I found references to in the Acts of the Apostles, two in his epistles, and one in Eusebius’ Eccleciastica History, written in the middle of the 4th century. Guess what! I’m going to share all this with you over the 36 weeks. I thought that Pentecost Sunday would be fitting day to start illustrating Paul’s Ministry from Jerusalem to Rome.
San Pauolo Fuori le Mura was constructed in the early 4th Century by Emperor Constantine. The location was where tradition placed Paul’s execution. Similarly, Constantine had a church built over the location of Saint Peter place of martyrdom. That has become the Basilica of St Peter, in the Vatican. This church became the Basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls. St. Peter’s is the largest church in Rome. St. Paul’s in the second largest. Either could host a football game (USA style) in its nave. Guess that gives a new meaning to the country song, “Jesus, Kick Me Through the Goal Posts of Life“.
As to the phrase “Outside the Walls” this relates to the location of Paul’s execution and burial, as these relate to Roman traditions. Such messy business was not conducted in the courts of law (the Roman Forum and judicial basilicas). Defensive walls had been built around most Roman cities by various rulers. Cemeteries were located outside these walls. Thus, south of Rome, a few kilometers from the gates of the Aurelian Walls, was the location where Paul was beheaded, then buried. Christians used catacombs for their burials for safety, rather than the above ground tombs and monuments used by Roman citizens.
Some years after the church was begun on this site (it went through numerous revisions and enlargements over the centuries), Paul’s body was exhumed from a catacomb and re-instated under the altar of the church. Only recently, during a renovation, was the lid of a sarcophagus found in the location traditionally believed to be where Paul should be buried.
Given that he was beheaded, you might be wondering whether his head rests with his other earthly remains. No, traditions places his head, along with Peter’s not with is body, but in the baldachin over the altar of San Giovanni in Laterano, which is inside the walls. You probably did not notice the golden statues of Peter and Paul that stand in the top of that baldachin. Legend has it that the heads of these statues are hinged, and contain the skulls of St. Peter and St. Paul. I will leave that “dare” to Catholic School boys to verify.
Another point of interest in the crypt below the altar of St Paul’s is a box which contains the relic of the chains which bound Paul while he was in prison. This part of his life comes later in his history. First, we must view his story from his conversion to his ministry to the Gentiles. Then we will arrive at Rome and his imprisonment.