How an Italian basilica was destroyed by fire in the 19th century

St Paul Outside the Walls CreditZoran Karapancev  Shutterstock St. Paul Outside the Walls. |  Zoran Karapancev / Shutterstock.

The partial destruction of Notre Dame basilica earlier this year elicited mourning from Catholics and non-Catholic alike. But it is not the first time an iconic basilica has endured flames - and been rebuilt for worshippers and pilgrims.

Nearly two centuries ago, during a hot July night, one of the greatest churches in Rome was consumed by fire for over five hours. When the flames finally subsided, almost the entirety of the basilica had been destroyed.

Before the night of July 15, 1823, St. Paul Outside the Walls was the only papal basilica which could still boast its original 4th-century structure. The site of St. Paul's tomb, it had been a major place of pilgrimage for centuries and was filled with valuable gothic and baroque artwork.

The blaze, an accident, got started by a workman making repairs to gutters on the roof. Though Rome had a fire department, it took them two hours to arrive.

Though the roof, most of the walls, and the interior columns of the basilica had all collapsed, the transept – or the part of the church forming a "cross" shape – held.

This helped to preserve a small part of the art: some of the 5th century mosaics on the triumphal arch, some of the 13th century mosaics on the apse, and the 13th century gothic baldachin, or canopy, over the high altar.

The fire was followed not long after by the death of Pope Pius VII and the election of Pope Leo XII, who launched an appeal for donations to rebuild the basilica as closely to its former glory as possible and reusing whatever art and materials had been saved.

"A Church will rise again to Paul, the companion of the merits and glory of Peter," Leo XII wrote in 1825. "If it no longer has those columns and other ornaments of inestimable value that one day it had, the church will be built with the magnificence that the offerings will allow."

The rebuilding was finished 30 years later, marked by the consecration of the "new" basilica by Pope Pius IX on Dec. 10, 1854; though construction to the surrounding area continued over the subsequent decades.

This is the basilica, with only some minor changes, which pilgrims and tourists to the Eternal City visit today, and to which all the bishops of the world make a quinquennial pilgrimage.

History of a basilica

St. Paul arrived in Rome in 61 AD. Condemned to death by the Emperor Nero, he was beheaded between 65 and 67 AD. His body was laid to rest in a burial area along the Via Ostiense outside the city walls, about two miles from the place of his martyrdom.

A memorial was soon erected on his tomb, which quickly became a place of prayer and veneration for the persecuted Christians of the first centuries.

In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine signed the Edict of Milan, which allowed Christianity to be freely practiced in Rome. This century in Rome saw the erection of many churches, including the major papal basilicas, though they have all been either completely rebuilt or undergone massive restoration and reconstruction over the centuries.

Constantine also ordered the building of a small church above the tomb of St. Paul. This modest basilica was consecrated by Pope Sylvester I in 324 AD.

About 70 years later, it was expanded to better accommodate the number of pilgrims it was receiving. This church, which was the largest papal basilica until the rebuilding of St. Peter's inside the Vatican, is the St. Paul Outside the Walls known today.

Over the centuries, many popes added chapels and artwork to the grand basilica.

More in Europe

One notable feature is the medallion-shaped portraits of the popes from St. Peter to Francis, as a frieze circling the nave and transept. These were added under Pope Leo the Great in the 5th century.

Pope John VIII constructed a fortification wall around the basilica and the connected Benedictine abbey in the 9th century.

Additions over the centuries included the Gothic baldachin over the papal altar and St. Paul's tomb, a monumental candelabrum to hold the Paschal candle, the large mosaic of Christ and the four authors of the Gospels in the apse, and mosaics on the triumphal arch.

Benedictine Monks have had a presence near the tomb of St. Paul since the 8th century. Still an active monastery, the monks oversee the ecumenical activities of the basilica and hear confessions.

Rebuilding a basilica

Part of reconstruction after the fire in 1823 included the addition of the distinct courtyard and portico at the entrance. The quadriportico, a large statue of St. Paul, and the mosaics on the facade were done from the 1890s to 1920s.

In Ad plurimus, Leo XII's letter asking for help for the basilica's reconstruction, the pope pointed to the donations from faithful around the world which had supported the construction in the 16th and 17th centuries of the current St. Peter's Basilica – "one of the largest and most beautiful in the whole universe."

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"Thus, for the same reasons, we have confidence that all those who are faithful to Christ and to this Holy See will be shown to be pious and liberal while, in the name of Paul, we ask them for help in Our needs," he wrote.

It is right to expect monetary assistance from devout people, he continued, "all the more so since it seems to have reached us, from God himself, this thought, this desire to keep alive the glory of the Apostle [Paul] among us, since, in the midst of the horror of the collapsed vault on the ruins of the great marble columns reduced to ashes, the whole tomb of the Apostle has been preserved."

Catholics around the world answered the pope's appeal and other prominent people contributed to the effort through gifts, including Tsar Nicholas I, who donated blocks of malachite and lapis lazuli for altars and King Fouad I of Egypt, who gave alabaster columns and windows.

What St. Paul did for Christians, "we do not hesitate to do it for him," Leo XII urged. Just as St. Paul collected alms to alleviate the poverty of the faithful in Jerusalem, "you will gather alms through which, before God with the intercession of the Apostle, you will be able to help the spiritual needs of the faithful."

"We hope therefore," he said, "that the Basilica will rise from the rubble with that magnificence that is appropriate to the name and memory of the Doctor of the Gentiles."

This article was originally published on CNA May 3, 2019.

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