This post continues the chronicles of Steve Bridge’s class trip to Rome.
Prior to today, we had visited two out of the four major Papal Basilicas in Rome. Having already crossed Saint John Lateran and Saint Peter’s off our list, we set off to see the remaining two.
Our Metro ride was unusually pleasant. We enjoyed the reprieve from overcrowded train cars that the weekend offered, and were treated to some unexpected entertainment! A two-man band featuring a guitar, a violin, and duo vocals performed several Italian songs en route to our first destination: Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls.
Saint Paul’s was unlike any of the churches we have visited so far. I was particularly impressed by the Mediterranean design, including two enormous palm trees at the entrance and a stunning rose garden in the courtyard (see courtyard)! We started by visiting the museum where we observed relics from some of the on-site excavations. On display were ancient mosaics, coins, and pieces of memorial stones and sarcophagi.
After a short break for lunch, we toured the basilica’s proper entrance. The giant façade of Saint Paul’s towered over us, with its gleaming golden mosaic in the center and rows of white columns surrounding it. But especially striking is the enormous statue of Saint Paul. He stands in the middle of the manicured courtyard with a book and a sword in his hands. We took individual and group photos there with St. Paul.
Once back inside the church we observed the church’s Byzantine bronze doors with dozens of engraved images, including the ascension, the crucifixions of Jesus and Peter, and the beheading of Paul.
Up near the ceiling on either side of the long, center aisle, we could see the mosaic portraits of each of the Popes, from Saint Peter all the way to Pope Francis—266 in all!
I was also impressed by the windows, which appeared to be constructed of a dark stained glass. They were actually made of thinly sliced plates of onyx! Although the church is kept dim, the natural light from these stone windows gave it a warm glow.
In front of the main altar one can see the original Constantinian foundation of Saint Paul’s Basilica, along with the chains that once bound him as a prisoner of Rome. Directly beneath that altar lies the very tomb of Saint Paul himself.
Many visitors took a moment to say a prayer there, as this holy site is a special place of pilgrimage for those of the Christian faith. Today, nearly all Christians descend from the gentile audiences that Saint Paul attracted. As Dr. Bridge explained, Saint Peter may have been the rock on which Jesus built his church, but it was Saint Paul who was ultimately responsible for filling it! We couldn’t see the sarcophagus lid, but a replication was displayed in the museum portion of the basilica. It reads: “PAULO APOSTOLOMART” (or “Paul, Apostle and Martyr”).
Following Saint Paul’s, we headed to Saint Mary Major, the last on our list of major Papal Basilicas. It is lavishly decorated with an extremely feminine feel to it. Gold and white dominated the color palate giving it a light, but ornate atmosphere and richer reds and purples made it feel dark, but rich. Despite being in a massive church, the whole experience gave me the feeling of sitting by a hearth with a warm fire in front of me. It was just what I needed after a rainy walk! The altar was decorated with bright red flowers in preparation for Pentecost, so we couldn’t get too close.
However, beneath the altar we could see the lighted exhibit of is purported to be the actual wood from Jesus’ manger.
Like each of the major basilicas before it, Saint Mary Major had its own personality and style, but its extravagant decorations, rich colors, and dim lighting provided a warmer experience unique from any other!
Submitted by Lauren Sharples