The Curious and Short-Lived Double Ciborium of the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura

A rather curious 'feature' that was once seen in the Basilica of San Paolo fuori le mura in Rome was the fact it had, for a short time, not one, but two ciboria over the high altar. Effectively you had a ciborium over a ciborium. Suffice it to say, this was an unusual and strange sight to behold and fortunately it was a short-lived sight which would be an all but forgotten memory excepting for the fact we still have a few historical photos that captured and documented this curious duplication. 

So then how did this come about and in one of the four great papal basilicas of Rome no less?  To understand that, one must first understand that the basilica underwent a substantial reconstruction during the nineteenth century. The reason for this is that on July 15, 1823, the basilica was almost totally destroyed following a great fire caused by a careless worker. Within a few years, reconstruction efforts on the basilica began, initially under the architect Pasquale Belli (+1833) and then continued after his death by Luigi Poletti -- who is the architect responsible for the bulk of the work. 

Fortunately the thirteenth century ciborium of Arnolfo di Cambio (as well as the mosaics of the apse and triumphal arch) survived the tragic fire -- not to mention the relics of St. Paul found below.  However, much as in the case of Notre Dame Cathedral in our own day and age, there was debate at the time about whether to restore the basilica as it was, or to introduce new, updated designs consonant with the particular tastes of the time.

It was Poletti who came up with and executed a design for a new, much larger ciborium for the high altar of St. Paul, intending to move Arnolfo's medieval ciborium to a detached baptistery. That baptistery, however, was never built and the new, secondary ciborium of Poletti was simply installed, in 1854, over Arnolfo's own ciborium.

A closer look showing the base of the ciborium with the arms of Pope Pius IX

While arguably Poletti's ciborium was in better proportions to the overall scale of the rest of the basilica, it also unhappily covered not only another ciborium, creating a needless duplication, but it also covered of the original medieval apsidal mosaic that had also survived the fire of 1823.  Whether it was for one or both of those reasons (or perhaps neither), the curiosity that was the double ciborium of St. Paul's was resolved in 1912 when, only 58 years after its installation, it was demolished. This restored the state of things to be as it was prior to the fire of 1823. 

The ciborium of Poletti now removed, for a time one could still see the foundations of the four great columns  -- since removed.

We may have Pius IX's predecessor, Gregory XVI, to thank for the fact that this original arrangement was preserved for it was he who, setting aside the debates taking place about how to restore the basilica, ordered that the original ciborium of Arnolfo di Cambio be preserved. Despite the fact that gothic architecture was very much out of fashion in Italy at that time, it was viewed as something of a miracle that it the medieval ciborium survived the fire at all and thus it surely deserved continued life within the basilica. 

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