After that blissful hour when our choir sang at the High Mass in Saint Peters we returned to some form of reality. We were first able to visit the catacombs where the apostle Peter is buried after his crucifixion in an upside down position (to avoid being compared to Jesus Christ – what astounding self-effacement!)
We then had some lunch and met up at the huge fountain on the right hand side of the Vatican square to go and sort ourselves out at the Sheraton (!) hotel. We then visited a couple of places associated with that other amazing apostle, Paul.
The first of these was the basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura (Saint Paul outside the walls). It’s one of the four Papal basilicas in Rome, the others being San Giovanni Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore and, of course, San Pietro itself.
The basilica looks very new for such an old building. In fact, it’s been almost entirely rebuilt after a disastrous fire of 1822 burnt much of it down. Stendhal has a great description of the vast ruins which he visited the morning after the fire in his Italian journal.
Today, if such a fire had occurred, the rebuilding would have incorporated most of what remained. In 1822, however, it was decided to rebuild practically in toto and only two parts of the original basilica remain: the apse with its marvellous mosaics of the old building, and perhaps some of the most beautiful cloisters ever, rivalling at the very least those of Monreale, Sicily which we visited in December 2011.
(I should add, however, that the architecture, proportions and plan of the old basilica were faithfully adhered to in the rebuilding, which took many years and received gifts from most of the monarchs and rulers of the Earth including the Khedive of Egypt).
The basilica is preceded by an atrium which has a much more neo-classical rather than a palaeo-Christian feel. The whiteness of the columns, the rigid symmetry, and the scale are all very impressive, even under the rain which was now beginning to fall.
One’s first glimpse, entering through the wonderful modern doors (which incorporate parts of the burnt originals) presents a totally astonishing view. The sense of the interior’s vastness (it’s the second largest church after St Peter’s) is emphasises by the total absence of chairs in a nave, surrounded by double aisles, extending over 430 feet in length. It’s all very wonderful but also a little cold in feeling. I think this is the closest one can get today in experiencing what the interior of an ancient Roman Imperial basilica must have looked like.
Approaching the high altar with its magnificent ciborium by Arnolfo di Cambio one is drawn to the sarcophagus, only uncovered in 2006, housing the remains of the apostle Paul and above which are the chains used to hold him captive while under house arrest.
Relics of the saints aren’t just useful for traditionally producing miracles – they really get you closer to the historical events and make you reflect and rethink about those huge characters that have formed so much of the Judaeo-Christian religious and philosophical environment in which we have been brought up.
We had time to visit another place associated with the apostle Paul: the actual place of his execution.
The Abbazia delle Tre Fontane (Three Fountains Abbey), otherwise known as the Abbey of Saints Vincent and Anastasius, is home to a community of Trappist monks (the ones that only speak when absolutely necessary – what a great idea for some of us to follow!) The abbey raises lambs whose wool is used to weave the pallia or woollen cloak worn by new metropolitan archbishops as a symbol of authority – following the parable of the good shepherd leading his flock.
The Pope, who is also bishop of Rome, blesses the lambs on the Feast of Saint Agnes on January 21. The wool is subsequently prepared and the cloaks weaved from it are given to the new archbishops on the day celebrating saints Peter and Paul.
The monastery actually has three separate churches. But by the time we got there, after a somewhat dismal walk in drizzling rain, two of them were shut already. The first, the Church of St. Paul of Three Fountains, was built on the spot where St. Paul was beheaded by that indefatigable Christian-baiter, the Emperor Nero. The three springs inside the church sprung up when Paul’s head, severed from his body, bounced and struck the ground in three different places, from which fountains sprang up.
The second church is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and is built over the remains of Saint Zeno and his 10,203 legionaries, martyred by order of Emperor Diocletian in 299. It must have been some execution scene!
I found the interior very simple and beautiful and perfectly suited to the lives of the Trappist monks, one of whom I met but who didn’t have very much to say to me, although he gave me a little smile…
We got back to our coach to head back to the hotel and from thence to our evening “a sorpresa” (surprise)….