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.
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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.