THE NAVE AND FOUR AISLES
Between 1831 and 1854, following the fire of 1823, Luigi Poletti rebuilt the grandiose interior (135 m long, 65 m wide and 30 m high), copying the style and dimensions of the Theodosian basilica. The nave and double flanking aisles are separated by four rows of twenty columns of Montòrfano granite. The coffered ceiling is richly decorated with gold and bears the coatof-arms of Pope Pius IX who completed the reconstruction of the ancient roof, the magnificence of which had been admired by the fifth century poet Prudentius: “The beams disappear under plated gold so that the light may shine like the dawn sun.”
The MONUMENTAL STATUES of St Paul (Salvatore Revelli) and of St Peter (Ignazio Jacometti) are found near the columns of the triumphal arch. The other apostles, dating from 1882, are in the niches of the lateral walls.
The PORTRAITS OF THE POPES The chronological series inaugurated by Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century and for the most part destroyed by the fire, was remade between 1848 and 1876 by the Vatican mosaic school. Some forty original frescos from the fifth to the ninth centuries are conserved in the abbey.
The WOODEN MODEL Restored, illuminated and mounted on a mobile support in 2006, the wooden model of the basilica (1844) is found in the left aisle. The architect Poletti, responsible for the reconstruction of the basilica, commissioned Serafino Colagiacomi to make it. The scale is 1:50. On close inspection, the visitor will see parts that were not implemented in the actual building.
The THIRTY-SIX FRESCOS There are 36 paintings depicting episodes from the life of St Paul. These are found along the central nave and the transept, above the papal portraits. They are separated by Corinthian pilasters and alternate with the windows. The work was promoted by Pope Pius IX in 1857 to substitute earlier medieval frescos by Pietro Cavallini. Many artists worked on the project bringing it to completion within the space of three years. The works have a narrative interest because they illustrate the life of Paul chronologically. Sts Peter and Paul, by Filippo Balbi, 1857.
The WINDOWS The glass windows of the Theodosian basilica caused the poet Prudentius to write the following evocative description: “In the rippled windows glitters glass of many colours; thus twinkle meadows strewn with springtime flowers.” Today the windows are made of thin plates of alabaster, a gift of King Fuad I of Egypt; they give the basilica a gentle suffused light.
FIFTH & SIXTH CENTURY TOMBS In the aisle on the far right, a glass-covered opening in the floor of the basilica offers a view of a number of Christian tombs from the necropolis that has been in this place since the end of the second century BC.
The BYZANTINE DOOR Within the basilica on the south side of the central door is found the Byzantine door that forms the inner section of the Holy Door. It is among the most ancient items saved from the fire of 1823. It was restored by experts and carefully integrated into the new building. Originally commissioned by Hildebrand of Soana, the future Pope St Gregory VII, who had been superior of the monastery of St Paul, it was cast in Constantinople in 1070 by an artist named Theodore. The wealthy Pantaleon of Amalfi financed the work which was signed by Staurachios of Chios. Its fifty-four panels enclosed in an elegant bronze frame, illustrate scenes and characters of the Bible. The figures and the inscriptions make it a work of rare beauty. Details with Greek inscriptions 1. martyrdom of St Paul: “Paul died in Rome”; 2. martyrdom of St Peter: “Peter died on the cross in the time of Nero”; 3. martyrdom of St Andrew: “Andrew was crucified in Patras” on the cross which is the tree of life.
The COUNTERFAÇADE In 1840 six great columns of semi-translucent alabaster (four with capitals) were given to Pope Gregory XVI by the viceroy of Egypt Mohammed Alì.