SAINT PAUL’S TOMB
The SARCOPHAGUS The sarcophagus of the apostle (2.55 m by 1.25 m; height, 0.97 m) in unpolished marble, is in the place where the emperor Constantine had the first altar built. Archaeological research and the excavations of 2006 brought to light the great sarcophagus that had been hidden by masonry. In addition they revealed the Constantinian apse of the year 324 hidden by the Theodosian construction of 395.
The ANCIENT APSE OF CONSTANTINE (visible under a sheet of glass) was at the west end of the first basilica and contained the tomb. With the increase in the number of pilgrims at the end of the fourth century, the emperor Theodosius decided to construct a larger basilica. The tomb was left in its original position but the orientation of the building was reversed (see the section “History of the basilica”).
A MEMORIAL SLAB OF THREE PIECES OF MARBLE (2.12 m by 1.27 m) dating from the fourth century with the dedication PAVLO APOSTOLO MART(YRI), to Paul Apostle mart(yr), is positioned horizontally within the papal altar about 40 cm above the sarcophagus. A grating on the east side of the altar enables it to be seen. There is a copy of the stone in the pinacotheca.
It has three holes, possibly connected with the ancient practice of pouring perfumes into tombs or with the custom of lowering objects to make contact with the sarcophagus, thereby creating contact relics.
The CIBORIUM (or BALDACHIN) The ciborium constructed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1285 rises over the papal altar. Standing on four columns of porphyry, it canopies the tomb of St Paul and lends dignity and beauty to the altar of the confession. In the four corners stand statues of Sts Paul, Peter, Timothy and Benedict. On one of the eight reliefs in the upper part of the ciborium is the image of the abbot Bartholomew who commissioned the work; he offers the ciborium to St Paul. The great Tuscan architect Arnolfo created a series of vertical lines that rise to God like perfumed incense (cf. Psalm 141:1). The precious materials employed express the glory of the life and death of St Paul who confessed Christ even to the shedding of his blood.
The TRIUMPHAL ARCH in honour of St Paul, “doctor of the nations” was begun by the emperor Theodosius in the year 386 and completed by his son Honorius. According to the inscription placed above: «TEODOSIUS CEPIT PERFECIT ONORIUS…» (Theodosius initiated and Honorius finished the Church). The mosaic was given by Galla Placidia, daughter of Theodosius, on the occasion of the restoration promoted by Pope Leo the Great following the earthquake of 442. The inscription on the arch reads: “PLACIDIAE … PONTIFICIS … LEONIS” (Placidia rejoices to see the work of her father shine forth in all its beauty, thanks to the zeal of Pope Leo).
At the centre, Christ is surrounded by the living creatures that symbolise the four evangelists and by the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse. On the left side of the arch St Paul indicates his tomb under the altar, and on the right is St Peter. These mosaics were damaged by the fire but restored in 1853. The arch is supported by two granite columns (14 m in height) surmounted by Ionic capitals. On the rear side of the triumphal arch are the remaining fragments of the mosaic by Cavallini (13th century) which was on the old façade of the basilica. At the centre are the words: GREGORIUS XVI OPUS ABSOLVIT AN 1840, confirming the completion of the first stage of the reconstruction and the papal consecration of the altar of the confession.
The CHAIN According to the tradition, bound St Paul to the Roman soldier guarding him during his house arrest while awaiting his trial. During that period he continued to teach and write. “Remember my chains!” (Colossians 4:18).
The EASTER CANDELABRUM Sculpted in 1170 by Pietro Vassalletto and Nicolò d’Angelo, the candelabrum is one of the finest pieces of Roman sculpture of the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries. It is a splendid example of the work of masters who initiated a particularly important sculptural tradition in Rome. Used to hold the paschal candle during the Easter Vigil, it is a monolithic marble column noteworthy for its dimensions (5.6 m in height) and the richness of its decorations. It retains some Latin inscriptions of varying legibility. Deciphered and translated, one of them proclaims the purpose of the candelabrum and of the paschal candle. The message is still true today: “as the tree bears fruit, so I bear the light and bring gifts; as Christ is risen I proclaim joy and place such gifts in homage”. On a base where lions, rams, sphinxes and female figures alternate, the candelabrum rises in seven divisions. The first, fifth and sixth present arabesques of vegetation and are divided by three bands that illustrate the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. The candleholder itself is on the summit and is sustained by alternating lions and eagles that recall early Christian tradition and the Romanesque style. The candelabrum was completely restored in the year 2000.