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Many tourists to Rome, both Catholics and non-Catholics, know very little about the papal basilicas outside of St. Peter’s. While St. Peter’s is the “mother church,” three others – San Paolo Fuori Le Mura, San Giovanni in Laterano, and Santa Maria Maggiore – make up Catholicism’s patriarchal basilicas. Each of the four have a “holy door,” opened once every 25 years during a Roman Jubilee, and have significance dating back to when the Catholic realm extended to Antioch and Constantinople.
So, I thought I’d introduce readers to the three other papal basilicas, starting with San Paolo Fuori Le Mura. This church, “outside of the walls,” is a wonderfully tranquil diversion away from the main sites of Rome.
San Paolo Fuori Le Mura
Address: Via Ostiense, 186 (EUR)
Getting There: Metro Line B to San Paolo stop; Buses 23, 170, 673
History: Built on top of the grave of St. Paul, this church has existed since before the 4th century. Emperor Theodosius ordered a monumental church built on top of the original church between 384 and 395 A.D. and San Paolo was the largest basilica in Rome until St. Peter’s was completed in 1626. In 1823, most of the church was destroyed in a fire. An identical church was rebuilt using surviving architectural elements and reconsecrated by Pope Gregory XVI in 1840.
What’s Cool: Elements that did survive the fire are a series of portrait medallions of each of the Popes, beginning with St. Peter. These medallions encircle the top register of the church and legend has it that when the circle of medallions is completed, then the apocalypse is nigh (!). Also interesting are the cloisters, which feature gorgeously gilded, twisting columns.
Photo © Vatican.va