“Paul is a figure of monumental significance. He expanded the church and instituted small but vibrant Christian communities wherever he went.” -Maria McLaughlin
Recently, our New Testament in the Eternal City class visited the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. This basilica, built over the tomb of the apostle Paul, enshrines the witness of martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel. As the patristic writer Tertullian stated, “…the apostles poured forth their whole teaching, along with their blood into the Church of Rome…” Like St. Peter, the apostle Paul culminates his ministry of the Word with the spiritual victory of winning the crown of martyrdom. As he states in II Timothy, “… the time for my departure is near, even now my life is being poured out as an offering. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and now what awaits me is a crown of glory that will never fade, life on high in Christ Jesus..” (4:6-8)
Although St. Paul’s martyrdom, like St. Peter’s, is not mentioned in the New Testament, the evidence of Patristic writers testifies to his execution outside of the walls of Rome on the road leading to the port city of Ostia. St. Paul was beheaded and his body was buried, according to tradition, by a pious Roman matron named Lucina, in a nearby pagan cemetery. Today the magnificent basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls stands over the site of his grave.
St. Paul’s tomb is below the altar, behind a grill, where a small red light burns constantly. If peered at through the grill, it is possible to see the marble cover of the sarcophagus with the inscription: “To Paul, Apostle and Martyr”. The cover has holes, made for direct contact with the inside of the tomb. Through these holes, in ancient times, pilgrims were able to lower down objects to touch the sarcophagus of the Apostle. And these pieces of cloth became prized relics for the ancient pilgrims.
After our visit, the students wrote papers connecting our lectures on St. Paul and his apostleship to the Gentiles with the art and architecture of the basilica. In this way, they are being trained to “read” a church and its artistic program from a theological and biblical point of view.
“During our site visit, we saw two cities in the mural: Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Bethlehem represents the Gentile community and Jerusalem represents the Jewish community. Also, Bethlehem can represents Jesus’ birthplace and Jerusalem can represent Jesus’ place of death. It is important that both cities are on the mural because it shows that both are equally important to God. Both the Gentiles and the Jews are equally important in God’s eyes.” -Francesca Coughlin
“All of this important work is honored and displayed in the basilica. From the outside, the detailed façade has much to say about Paul. Peter and Paul are both standing next to Jesus who is seated in a throne of victory and judgment. Peter is often displayed in this basilica alongside Paul as they are often seen as a duo, the founders of the Church.” – Sophia Bolt
” There are also a series of mosaics throughout the basilica that each illustrate a scene from the life of Saint Paul, where the viewer enters into a narrative of his life. The artwork shows how he fits in with both Peter and Christ with his apostolic mission.” – Catherine McLean
“In the basilica Saint Paul outside the walls, the triumphal arch has a unique portrait of Jesus… It portrays Jesus as seated on a throne. His face is stern… This facial expression is not common among images of Jesus. This is because it represents his attitude towards his second coming . At that time, he will sit as Judge over all of the living and dead. God gave him the power of deciding who will make it into heaven and who will not.” -Zach Jensen
“Another interesting point to note about the triumphal arch in Saint Paul’s basilica is its location. According the Catholic tradition, triumphal arches are always placed over the tomb of a martyr. The reason is because this specific location represents a spiritual victory. Just as Paul found God and preached his word by founding Christian communities, we too are invited to do the same and experience God’s word for ourselves.” – Tim Evans
“Surrounding the portrait of Jesus Christ, draped in white linen, as described in the Book of Revelation, are “the twenty-four elders on the throne, [who] will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne,” (Revelation 4:10). These elders have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb, being Jesus Christ, and they are therefore privileged to sit with Jesus. They are offering their crowns of martyrdom to Jesus to illustrate their adoration and gratitude for the Lord and his salvation.” -Jacqueline Condon
“In the front of the church, the quadriportico is home to an enormous statue of St. Paul that was erected to honor him. This statue alone can tell one the whole story of who Paul was and the work he did. Starting from his clothing, he is wearing cloth over his head to denote that he is a traveler and pilgrim. He travels to other nations to teach and preach to gentiles, or non-Jews. St. Paul is carrying a sword because it represents his martyrdom for Christianity. Also, the word of God is believed to be like “a two edged sword.” In Paul’s other hand, he is a carrying a book. These represent his teachings to the gentiles.” – Ben Hochberger