Basilica St. Paul outside the Walls
San Paolo fuori le Mura or Basilica Ostiense (because situated on the road to Ostia) has been erected on the spot where St. Paul has been buried. The most important of the Apostles, who had been converted on his way to Damascus and had returned to Rome, was decapitated in the persecution of Christians under Emperor Nero in the year 67 and buried on the road to Ostia on a piece of land of a Christian woman called Lucina. The Emperor Constantine commissioned a memorial chapel, and in 386 the Emperors Valentinian, Theodosius and Arcadius donated a basilica.
Until the new construction of St. Peter's Basilica this has not only been the largest but also the most beautiful of the Roman churches, with a rich decoration of mosaics and fresco paintings. In the 5th century, Prudentius described it as a "Golden Dome". The custom of displaying portraits of the popes in medallions above the pillars comes from that period.
Apart from small retouches, restoration after an earthquake and the replacements of some mosaics or paintings, the basilica has practically not been altered for centuries. Only under Sixtus V the coffered ceiling was added, and under Benedictus XIII, Alessandro Galilei built a classicist portico. Then, during the night between July 15 and 16, 1823, an enormous fire destroyed the whole basilica. It was rebuilt over the foundation walls and with the same floor plans, mainly by Luigi Poletti in the 19th century in its historic style, and consecrated again in 1840. The enormous four-side portico was added only in 1892-1928. From the original interior, especially the paintings, almost nothing remained.
The mosaics were restored or rather reconstructed in a romantic style. Only behind the triumphal arch what rests of some of Pietro Cavallini's mosaics shows their original state. Several important remains, such as an enormous head of St. Peter, a Madonna mosaic and the 42 most antique papal medallions which survived the fire, are exposed in the vestry and in the museum. What remained in the basilica itself was a fine marble canopy over the high altar, the work of Arnolfo di Cambio (1285) and a masterpiece of Italian Gothic style, and an impressive Paschal candlestick from the 12th century. Fortunately, the fire also spared the cloister (1241), with its pairs of colourful inlaid columns, considered one of the most beautiful in Rome.