Saint Paul: Bones and Portrait Discovered in Rome

In what seems like a strange coincidence, two astonishing discoveries providing evidence of the life of Saint Paul have been made within days of each other at two religious sites in Rome. First of all a fourth century fresco of the Christian saint was uncovered on 19 June at the Catacombs of Santa Thekla in Rome. Paul formerly Saul was a Hellenic Jew who converted to Christianity after his religious experience on the road to Damascus but was then executed during the reign of the emperor Nero between 60-67 AD. The Christian catacombs of Santa Thekla, closed to the public, are reported to be full of frescoes, although most are in need of restoration. It was during an ongoing preservation project that the discovery was made. The fresco is in line with other Christian iconography of the saint from that time showing him with a thin face and beard, with his head against a red background and gold halo. The director of restoration work at the catacomb of Santa Thekla, Barbara Mazzei, was quoted by the Telegraph as saying: It is a sensational discovery and is of tremendous significance. This is then first time that a single image of Saint Paul in such good condition has been found and it is the oldest one known of. Experts used laser treatment to clean residues of limestone off the frescoes. The catacombs of Santa Thekla are one of 40 catacombs in the capital – others include the catacombs of Domitilla, which were recently part of a pioneering laser-scan project to map out the interior, which also contains valuable early Christian paintings.

The second ‘revelation’ came when the Vatican decided to carry out a carbon-dating test of human remains inside a tomb at the basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura (Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls). Traditionally it is said to be the resting place of Saint Paul, even though he is thought to have been beheaded at the Abbey of the Three Fountains, also in Rome. The tomb in question was discovered in 2006 beneath the marble floor of San Paolo Fuori le Mura, beneath an inscription that reads Paulo Apostolo Mart (Paul the Apostle and Martyr), at the foot of the church’s main altar. The tomb hasn’t been opened, but a small hole in it has revealed its contents to include human remains and purple linen embroidered with gold. The tests suggest that the human inside lived between the first and second century AD which would be in keeping with Saint Paul’s lifetime. The Pope himself was quoted by the Guardian as saying: “This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that these are the mortal remains of Paul the apostle,” adding that the discovery “fills our souls with great emotion”.

These two discoveries, both announced by the Vatican, come at the end of the Pauline year, which ended on the 29 June 2009. According to the Vatican, this marks the 2,000th anniversary of Saint Paul’s birth. The 29 June is also the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul most Romans celebrate their city’s public holiday by heading to the beach at Ostia.

Photos by LostBob and Stefano Palmieri.