CLOISTER AND EXHIBITION AREA
The COSMATI CLOISTER (see opening photo) Begun in 1205 and completed in 1235, the cloister is the work of the artists known as the Cosmati and the Vassalletto who were celebrated Roman marble-craftsmen. In the centre of the cloister are four squares of well-tended garden. Around them are four covered walks protected by a low wall or podium. From this base rise elegant paired columns sculpted in various ways, some twisted, some decorated with mosaics. The columns support round arches that run the entire periphery of the cloister. A Latin metric inscription in letters of mosaic can be read from the garden. It runs around the three newer sides of the cloister and describes the purpose and origin of the space.
The ORATORY OF ST JULIAN marks the passage from the basilica to the cloister; it contains frescos from the 12th and 13th centuries showing martyrs associated with the basilica.
The BAPTISTRY OR CHAPEL OF ST TIMOTHY In the shape of a Greek cross, the space was remodelled by Arnaldo Foschini (1928). It employs antique Ionic columns. In the arches are frescos in the form of medallions that show images of saints; they are attributed to Antonio da Viterbo (15th century). On the walls, panels of precious marble from various regions of the world indicate the multiplicity of rites and of Christian peoples. Since 2008 the baptistry has served as a place of prayer for small groups of the faithful. The altar, brought here from the confession, contains the remains of St Timothy of Antioch, a martyr of 311, and of other unknown martyrs. In the area there is a sarcophagus and other objects associated with the saint.
The FRESCO OF ST PAUL Entering through the door from via Ostiense (open only on certain occasions) one arrives in the Sala Gregoriana, which owes its name to the colossal statue of Pope Gregory XVI sculpted by R. Rinaldi. On the left is the sacristy. Ahead is the passageway that leads into the basilica. In this area, above the passageway is a notable fresco of St Paul with the symbols of the sword and the book. The work of Antoniazzo Romano (end of the 15th century) it has often been used as a model for other iconographic representations of St Paul.
The PINACOTHECA This is a large hall where paintings, vestments, sacred vessels and other items from the archive and library of the abbey of St Paul are on display. The paintings on wood and canvas of the pinacotheca belong to different schools and centuries. Of particu lar interest is the facsimile copy of a manuscript Bible on parchment (the Carolingian Bible of St Paul) dating from the ninth century, the work of one of the most celebrated miniature schools of the time, that of the court of Rheims in France. The original is in the abbey archive. The works on display in the pinacotheca are periodically substituted. In this space there are also occasional temporary exhibitions.
The archaeological passageway along the south wall of the basilica, hosts a series of monumental capitals and sections of columns of the Theodosian basilica.
The LAPIDARY MUSEUM In the cloister are found architectural fragments from the ancient basilica and nearly 2000 pieces of tombstones with inscriptions in Greek and Latin, that come from the nearby necropolis. Originally a pagan public cemetery it was later used by Christians. We know, for example, that a Christian woman named Lucina took the body of Paul after his martyrdom and placed it in a tomb which then became a place of pilgrimage. In the cloister there is a fine Roman sarcophagus from the third century, reused in the 12th as the tomb of the Pierleoni. There is also a facsimile of the front panel of a splendid sarcophagus known as the “dogmatic sarcophagus.” One of the earliest portrayals of the Trinity (the three persons on the left have the same face) is carved on it. The work was carried out at the time of the Trinitarian definition of the council of Nicaea (325). The original, discovered here after the fire of 1823, is now preserved in the Vatican Museum.
The CHAPEL OF RELICS Halfway along the east walk of the cloister a door opens onto the chapel of relics. Following a recent restoration the apse space has been reordered behind a glass screen. Some of the basilica’s many relics, handed down through the centuries, are placed there. They are accompanied by a description indicating their provenance and origin.
The EXHIBITION GALLERY From the cloister we pass to the “exhibition gallery” which leads to the new building with its two levels: below ground the archaeological area and on the ground floor the shop and cafeteria. The exhibition gallery is almost thirty metres long. In the ten display cases are artefacts that recount the history of the basilica and the monastery of St Paul (sacred vessels, ceramics, coins and medals and the most important articles brought to light by recent excavations).
The ARCHAEOLOGICAL AREA In 2007, in preparation for the construction of a building to serve the needs of visitors, excavations were carried out in part of the monastery garden to the southwest of the basilica. These took some two years and rapidly revealed an impressive series of archaeological finds dating from the late antique to the late medieval period. A multifunctional building was constructed, but the area below was opened as an exhibition site for the conservation of the architectural finds. A memorial stone of the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) conserved in the abbey, reports the presence at St Paul’s of a monastery of women, dedicated to St Stephen. The excavation uncovered structures possibly connected to that monastery, as well as remains originating in other periods. The finds included an ample guest area, a portico, columns, a well, a small bell tower and a part of a covered walkway that in early medieval times ran from the gate of the city called “Porta S. Paolo” to the basilica. The archaeological investigations and the work of restoration and conservation were led by the Vatican Museum in collaboration with the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology, the School of specialisation in environmental and architectonic heritage of the University of Rome, “La Sapienza”, and the Administration of the Basilica of St Paul. The covered area of some 1000 sq. m, offers visitors a fascinating historical and artistic experience, thanks to the illustrative panels and multimedia films displayed along the route of the visit.