The Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, so-called because of its location outside the old city walls, is one of the great churches of Rome. Although overshadowed by St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican, as well as by St. Paul Outside the Walls and St. John in Lateran, it is nevertheless a beloved and popular pilgrimage destination. Aside from its antiquity, it is home to the tomb of Lawrence, one of the oldest Catholic saints, as well as possibly the tomb of St. Stephen. St. Lawrence’s is one of the seven ancient pilgrimage churches of Rome and one of five Patriarchal Basilicas (representing Jerusalem). The Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside The Wall is part of the Vatican City UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lawrence of Rome was an important leader of the Church in the mid-3rd century, and one of the very few major Christian figures of the era that anything is known with any certainty. In 258, Lawrence, who was then serving as one of the seven deacons of the Church in Rome, was ordered to turn over all of the Church’s wealth to Roman authorities. As the story goes, in the ensuing three days in which he was given to gather the money, Lawrence instead distributed all of it to the poor and sick of the city. When it was time to turn over the money to Roman officials, he presented the city’s needy and destitute as the true treasures of the Church. The Roman prefect was apparently not amused, and had Lawrence put to death by roasting him on a grill.
Aside from major figures such as Peter and Paul, Lawrence was among the first and most important Christian leaders honored with a major church in Rome. The emperor Constantine erected a chapel on the site of Lawrence’s martyrdom. A full-fledged church was constructed on the site in the 6th century. It is uncertain exactly when the body of Lawrence was interred in the structure, but the tradition of his burial at the site dates back to this early period. It was further expanded in the 13th century, when it was rededicated in honor of those who served as deacons of the Church. According to tradition, the remains of Stephen the first martyr were later brought to Rome and interred next to Lawrence at this time.
Although not one of the four Basilicas Major of Rome, the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Wall is counted along with them as one of the five patriarchal basilicas, and is the honorary seat of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It was the seat in fact of the Latin Patriarch in exile from the mid-14th to the mid-19th century. From the earliest days of the Church, it has also been recognized as one of the mandatory seven pilgrimage churches of Rome.
While the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Wall is less important than the four basilicas major, it is older and beter preserved, with some of the original structure and artwork still intact. Unfortunately, the church was damaged by bombing during World War II, though not completely. Restorations following the war were completed quickly, with only part of the early church being lost. Although it retains its designations as both a patriarchal church and pilgrimage church, the basilica is today one of Catholic Rome’s less visited sites, a boon to hard-core visitors who wish to avoid the crowds of St. Peter’s.
The Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Wall was a designed along traditional Roman-era lines, though the majority of the structure dates from the Middle Ages. The colonaded façade essentially dates from after World War II, when it was badly damaged by bombs. The basilica exterior is graceful but somewhat plain compared to the other patriarchal basilicas in Rome. The campanile bell tower to the right of the main church building dates from the 12th century. The main portico entrance is similarly old.
The church interior may be one of the best surviving examples of classic Roman-age architecture. Consisting of a simple, central nave flanked by single colonnaded aisles, the white marble and red brick main chamber probably looks much as it did in the early Middle Ages. Some of the early frescoes and artwork survive, including a Roman-era sarcophagus that was recycled for Christian use, and which boasts pre-Christian engravings. The tombs of Lawrence and Stephen are under the main altar. Also buried in the church are St. Hilarius and Pope Pius IX.
The Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Wall is ideal for the dedicated pilgrim visitor, as it is typically much less crowded than the other major churches of Rome. It is open daily (times not available as of the time of this writing). There is no cost of admission. Web: www.basilicasanlorenzo.it (official website)
The Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls is one of the seven official pilgrimage churches of Rome. The others are the Basilica of St. Peter in Vatican; the Basilica of St. John in Lateran; the Basilica of St. Mary Major; the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls; the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem; and for traditionalists, there is also the ancient Church of St. Sebastian, which was replaced recently by the Basilica of Our Lady of Divine Love.