The Frescoes of Paul’s Ministry at San Paulo Fuori le Mura

IMG_4278As 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.

P1020112San 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“.

P1010845As 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.

P1020124 - Version 2Some 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 P1010613 - Version 2and 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.

P1020126 - Version 2Another 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.


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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11 Responses to The Frescoes of Paul’s Ministry at San Paulo Fuori le Mura

  1. What? You found another church to explore?? I love the photo of you taking a photo of church architecture – wonderful portrait!.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Credit the wife with taking the picture of me taking a picture… So many churches…. so little time. Of course, you have probably been wondering why I have not been very visible in cyber space recently. Among other obligations, researching and writing about 36 frescoes has taken some time. Maybe your hawks could fly around the basilica for a better view.

  2. KerryCan says:

    Where would the history of art be without churches?! Such a treasure trove of beauty within all those walls. I’ll look forward to this series.

  3. The Vicar says:

    Great! I’ve been looking forward to this series. I await your insights and observations not only on Paul’s journey, but how that might inform our current state.

  4. jane arney says:

    I love your comment/reply about museum’s being secular churches! The early encyclopedic museums like the British Museum, were intentionally designed like Greek temples to impart an air of majesty and awe. Banks were built the same way for the same reasons.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      The British Museum has early childhood memories for me. When I was about 11 years old, we travelled to Europe. My mother and grandmother sat on a bench in the British Museum deliberating something about activities that evening (I was to be hired out to some nanny, thus not involved). I got impatient and wandered off into for find the sculpture from the Parthanon. They eventually found me at the Winged Lion gates to Babylon (does my memory recall correctly that they had something to do with Nebuchadnezzar?)

  5. Paul J. Wigowsky says:

    I recently visited the Basilica St. Paul Outside the Walls, and when I came back home I was trying to find the 36 frescoes online. You seem to have the only compilation of all 36 frescoes. Do you have a webpage with all 36 frescoes with links to pics?

    • hermitsdoor says:


      I am delighted that you came across my efforts to record this series of frescoes. I had wondered whether my posts would show up on an Internet search.

      Part of my motivation for writing this series of blogs is to present each fresco. In my search I came across little information about them, and no Internet links which showed an image of each fresco.

      I took photos of each fresco while standing in the nave or transcept of the basilica. I was pleased at how well they came out, given the angle that I was at, that I was working with the lighting at that moment, and did not have a tripod.

      I did not find any Internet list of the artists for about 6 months. Rather, I read through the Acts of the Apostles, identifying the stories of 33 of the frescos in that text. Then I came across a post that outlined the art in St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. This included a list of the artists for each fresco and the related story.

      I hope that you will be patient to return each Sunday as I post one fresco per week.

      Thanks for commenting.

  6. Pingback: Theatre Review(s): Carousel and Henry VI, Part 2 | hermitsdoor

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