July 15: Phoenix of St. Paul

2016/07/15 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1823 huge fire destroyed St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.

The great pilgrimage basilica in Rome, one of the four “ancient papal” basilicas dating to the fourth century, was the only one that still had its Early Christian-era fittings intact.  The faithful have long believed it is the burial site of the apostle (and recent archaeology leans toward support of the tradition).  In spite of this significance, a clumsy workman conducting repairs to the roof started a blaze in the 1500-year-old timber structure, and almost the whole thing was lost.

Although the nineteenth century was a ripe age for the study of history, “restoration” architects could sometimes take a funny view of actual historical fabric and introduce bizarro interpretations (witness virtually everything Viollet-le-Duc touched).  Such was not the case at St. Paul’s, which was rebuilt as close to the original as possible.  It is a great big barn of a church: the nave is flanked by double side aisles, the whole thing west of the transept measuring over 430 feet long and 210 feet wide, almost 100 feet to the peak.  In spite of the voracious blaze, the church maintains some original architectural relics: the early thirteenth century cloister with twisty columns and buckets of mosaic inlay, the later thirteenth-century tabernacle by Arnolfo di Cambio and mosaics of the triumphal arch that were paid for by–wait for it–GALLA PLACIDIA. The rest of the basilica that stands today, with tons of marble revetment and columns, frescoes, mosaics, dates to the nineteenth century but scrupulously followed the design original basilica.

The other basilicas in Rome have been worn down with (one might say “enhanced by”) the patina of age, the scraping of pilgrims’ and tourists’ feet, the residue of smoke, incense and burned wax across centuries, as well as later adjustments to modernize their interiors, oftentimes with Baroque frosting.  St. Paul’s is virtually pristine. Visitors today are met a church that, even though it is nearing its bicentennial, is the world’s most accurate fourth-century setting; it is a gleaming vessel for  centuries-old liturgy as well as ancient bones.

Image: facade, from the atrium (Clio’s)

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