Eternal Rome is renowned for, among other things, its profusion of elegant flights of marble stairs – some indoors, leading to staterooms in Renaissance mansion, others outdoors, climbing to churches or descending one or another of the city’s fabled “Seven Hills.” The Spanish Steps, bedecked with potted azaleas in springtime and ascending gracefully to the twin-towered church of Trinita dei Monti, are perhaps the best known and most photographed of all.
But there is just one staircase that is known as “holy.” Diagonally across the piazza from the Basilica of St. John Lateran is a two-story, gray sandstone structure that enshrines La Scala Santa, a flight of twenty-eight marble steps which tradition claims once led to the gubernatorial office of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem.
Soon after her conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century, Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, set out for the province of Judea to gather things that were touched (and therefore hallowed), by Christ, including the “True Cross.” Realizing that the Lord must have ascended these stairs for his arraignment before the provincial governor and then descended them en route to Golgotha, Helena had them dismantled and shipped to Rome around the year 326. Upon their arrival in the Imperial capital, the stairs were placed on the right side of the portico entrance of the Lateran Palace, which by that time had become the official Papal residence.
This tradition receives additional credibility from the fact that the steps are cut from a type of marble commonly used in Jerusalem at that time and by reports in later centuries confirming that the steps of the formal entrance of the still-standing governor’s palace were missing.
Known throughout the Middle Ages as the Scala Pilati, the staircase was the subject of much veneration and the setting for many Papal ceremonies. These events are mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis, a tome containing the biographies of the Popes written in the sixth century.
In 1589, having carried out extensive alterations to the Lateran Palace, Pope Sixtus V had the steps transferred the short distance to their present site, where they serve as the ceremonial approach to the Papal chapel called Sancta Sanctorum, “The Holy of Holies.” This small oratory, so-named because of the great number of precious relics it houses, was erected during the pontificate of Nicholas III (1277-1289). Most of the relics and their reliquaries date back to the first few centuries of Christianity. On the frieze above the altar are engraved these words: NON EST IN TOTO SANCTIOR ORBE LOCUS (“In the whole world, there is no holier place”.)
Firmly believing that these steps had indeed been sanctified by the feet of Jesus of Nazareth, pontiffs since Sixtus V have ascended them on their knees, on their every visit to the Sancta Sanctorum. Seeking to encourage, by personal example, public veneration of the Holy Stairs, Pope Clement VIII made the ascent on more than a hundred occasions in the Jubilee Year of 1600. Among later Popes who practiced this devotion frequently and with great fervor were Urban VIII (1623-1644), Innocent X (1644-1655) and Clement X (1670-1676).
From the Jubilee of 1600 on, devout Romans and pilgrims to the Eternal City – by the tens of thousands, have made the arduous climb, on their knees, pausing on each step to pray and to meditate on Christ’s passion. This devotion remains much in favor. Regardless of one’s beliefs, it is an inescapably moving experience to come here and witness throngs of the faithful moving slowly up the dimly lit stairwell and hear the murmur of their fervent prayers.
Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) had Ignazio Iacometti, the pre-eminent sculptor of the time, set up two of his most acclaimed works on either side of the bottom of the Scala Santa: “Christ Receiving the Kiss of Judas” (with the Latin inscription OSCULO FILIUM HOMINIS TRADIS on its base) and “Christ Presented to the Rabble by Pilate” (with this inscription: HAEC EST HORA VESTRA ET POTESTAS TENEBRARUM… ”This is your hour and the power of darkness.” The latter work is often referred to by the Latin phrase: ECCE HOMO, “Behold the Man.”
In 1853, the same Pontiff fittingly entrusted the care of the entire sanctuary to the Passionist Fathers. They have remained in charge to the present.
About the author – Frank J. Korn is the author of nine books about Rome and a Fulbright Scholar at the American Academy in Rome.