Basilica di San Paolo Fuori le Mura

The Four Papal Basilicas of Rome

The Portraits of the Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls

Kate Middleton was reportedly “thrilled” when her first official portrait was unveiled at London’s National Portrait Gallery in January 2013. Some art critics, mind you, were reportedly less thrilled. One apparently even described it outright as “rotten”. It is yet to be seen what the brand spanking new Pope Francis thinks of his official ‘mosaic medallion’ portrait, which following its creation, will be on eternal display in Rome’s Basilica di San Paolo Fuori le Mura.

This is one of four papal basilicas and, until Saint Peter’s was constructed in the 16th century, it was the largest church in Christendom. It marks the alleged spot where the Saint Paul the Apostle was beheaded around 65 AD and, in fact, it also houses his tomb. In antiquity, the Roman Emperor Constantine was the first to convert to Christianity and he constructed a church on this spot. This was then expanded in the 8th century and destroyed by a fire in 1823. The contemporary basilica was reconstructed in the 19th century and is home to many original mosaics, which were painstakingly restored, as well as the impressive fifth century tradition of papal portraiture.

Basilica di San Paolo Fuori le Mura

Each of the popes dating back to Saint Peter is awarded a circular mosaic portrait around the internal walls of the basilica. The portrait of the current pope, or in this case the latest pope, is continuously lit up. Pope Benedict XVI is accompanied in one direction by the medallion portraits of his predecessors and in the other direction by blank circles for successive popes, including newcomer Pope Francis.

Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) decreed in 1847 that instead of restoring and continuing the tradition in paint, the portraits were to be done in mosaic. Forty-one of the original frescoed portraits that survived the 19th century fire are now kept in the adjoining abbey. Since Pius’ time, these mosaic portraits have continued to be created by artists from the Vatican Mosaic Studio, which was founded in the 16th century.

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Inside the basilica there is room for 271 papal portraits plus 28 spots that are yet to be filled. Pope Benedict IX appears three times given his election to the role on three occasions. Some other popes are excluded altogether due to questions surrounding their legitimacy. There are portraits of three popes who allegedly never existed at all and eight popes are featured whose legitimacy has since been discredited. The Vatican’s Annuario Pontificio, which is published each year as an official directory of the Holy See, identifies 264 legitimate popes and 37 ‘antipopes’.

All in all, no one at the basilica was able to tell me when exactly Pope Francis is set to join his brethren on the wall but they were nevertheless amused by the fact I was asking the question so soon after his appointment. Would it have been facetious of me to mention that Madrid’s Wax Work museum has already unveiled a bust of the new pontiff?

The cloister of the basilica, the work of Jacopo and Pietro Vassalletto, from which it takes its name, is one of the wonders of 13th-century Rome. It has columns of different types and shapes, decorated with mosaics and colored marbles. They support the arches on which stands the epistyle adorned with magnificent mosaics and limited at the top by a white marble frame with the heads of lions, oxen, goats, and other animals, from whose mouths rainwater flows.

Angeli Rock: drinks and food near the Basilica di San Paolo

Piazzale San Paolo, 1

Opening hour
Open every day 6.45am-6pm

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