I am sure it would not be difficult for us to imagine just now that we are looking at a chaste and exquisite Greek temple built on Mars Hill in the golden days of Athenian glory ; for I know nothing else to which to compare this noble structure, so pure and radiant is it, unless it be to the spotless robe which glistens eternally upon the shoulders of Mont Blanc.
This church, in which we are standing, is in the midst of a vast solitude on the very edge of the mournful Campagna and close to the Tiber. The surrounding territory was not always desolate. During the Middle Ages, a large and flourishing suburb called Johannipolis, from its founder, John VIII, stood here, but the fearful ravages of that dread and awful pestilence, the Roman fever, transformed the place into a pitiable desert,- a fitting locality, however, in which to speak forth the story of the martyrdom of St. Paul.
The more ancient structure which stood here was destroyed by fire, July 15, 1823, and this basilica took its place in 1854. It may be of interest to English speaking people to know that while the sovereigns of France were recognized as the protectors of St. John Lateran, and those of Spain of S. M. Maggiore, the sovereigns of England, before the Reformation, were the protectors of this S. Paolo fuori le Mura.
It is four hundred and ten feet from the apse to the far end of the nave of the church, along which we are now looking, and the width is two hundred and twenty-two feet. We are standing near the western end looking east. Four ranges of violet granite columns with white marble bases and capitals surround this space ; one of the second row may be seen through the altar on the right. Above the inner rows of columns we may see a series of mosaic portraits of the Popes, and though we might not at first think it, each of these portraits is five feet in diameter.
The grand triumphal arch, resting on the two superb Ionic pillars, just beyond and above the altar – the left-hand one we can see plainly – belongs to the old basilica, erected in 386. We catch enough of the fine sweep of the arch to note the beautiful carving which covers it.
Now examine the high altar. It is supported by four pillars of oriental alabaster, presented by a Mohammedan, Mehemet Ali, Viceroy of Egypt; while back of us, at the ends of the transepts, are altars of malachite, the gift of the Emperor Nicholas of Russia, the head of the Greek Church.
Beneath this high altar is the ” Confessio ” where the Apostle Paul is said to be buried. As for myself, I have often looked long and admiringly at this church, at the lustrous pavement, doubling, as on the surface of a mountain lake, all the arches and vaults. Its flat, gorgeously paneled ceiling adds wondrously to the exquisite effect of the whole.
Ever since first I saw the interior of this church, my regret has been that such a dream of perfection in stone could not have been placed beside some crowded thoroughfare, where men and women, wearied with life’s battle and worn with its burdens, could step into its calm loveliness, and from the vantage-ground of its sacred beauty and spiritual repose, catch sight of ” the house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
Before we leave this place, we must see the cloisters, one of the best examples of monastic architecture that have come down to us from the thirteenth century.