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An Ancient Poet Describes Today’s Station Church

Gregory DiPippo

The Lenten station church in Rome today is the great basilica of St Paul on the Ostian way, which houses the Apostle’s tomb. The original church was one of the six built by the Emperor Constantine in the first years of the peace of the Church, but it was a rather small affair, hardly becoming the tomb of so glorious a Saint, and far from being large enough to accommodate the large groups of pilgrims that flocked to it. In the year 386, the Emperor Theodosius began rebuilding it on a far larger scale, a project that was substantially completed by about 402, although the major decorations were not completed until the reign of Pope St Leo I (440-61). This church, which was larger than the old basilica of St Peter, remained standing until 1823, when it was mostly destroyed by an accidental fire. The modern replacement, which was built to reproduce the former of the original as closely as possible, was begun two years later, and dedicated by Bl. Pius IX on December 10, 1854, although as with its ancient predecessor, work continued on the decorations for a long time after.

The poet Prudentius, who was born in Spain in 348, and died there in the early years of the following century, saw the church when it had just been completed, and described it in the following verses of his book Peristephanon (On the Crowns of the Martyrs), 12, 45-54. The meter is rather complex one called the Fourth Archolochean.

Parte alia titulum Pauli via servat Ostiensis,
Qua stringit amnis cespitem sinistrum.
Regia pompa loci est: princeps bonus has sacravit arces,
Lusitque magnis ambitum talentis.
Bracteolas trabibus sublevit, ut omnis aurulenta
Lux esset intus, ceu jubar sub ortu.
Subdidit et parias fulvis laquearibus columnas,
Distinguit illic quas quaternus ordo.
Tum camuros hyalo insigni varie cucurrit arcus:
Sic prata vernis floribus renident.

“On the other side (i.e., of the Tiber), the road to Ostia keeps the memorial church of Paul, where the river touches its left bank. Its splendor is that of a palace; the good emperor dedicated this citadel (of the Faith), and decorated its whole extent with great wealth. He covered the beams with gold leaf, so that all the light within might be golden like the rays of the sun at its rising. He set columns of Parian marble beneath the gold-paneled ceiling, which are set out in four rows. Then he covered the curves of the arches with splendid glass of different colors; even so are the meadows bright with the flowers of spring.”

Note some of the unusual vocabulary here: “titulus – title” is an early Christian technical term for a church titled to a particular Saint, or to the person who built or, or in whose house it was situated; “lusit”, from “ludĕre – to play” is here used in a thoroughly atypical sense derived from the meaning “to play a song”, hence, “to compose or arrange something”; “bracteola” means “gold leaf”.

(The basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls; image from Wikimedia Commons by Dnalor_01, CC BY-SA 3.0 AT)

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