Holy Relics: The Scala Sancta

Holy Relics: The Scala Sancta

The Scala Sancta or Holy Stairs are composed of 28 marble white marble steps. They can now be found in Rome, but before they made their way there they were originally in Jerusalem, where they led to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate. It is believed that Jesus stepped on them on his way to trial during his Passion.

History Of The Scala Sancta

St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, went to great pains to have them brought to Rome, Italy in 326 A.D. as part of her expeditions to locate Holy relics shortly after converting to Christianity.

Engraving of the Scala Sancta by Pieter Mortier, 1704

Engraving of the Scala Sancta by Pieter Mortier, 1704.

During the Middle Ages they were called the “Stairs of Pilate” or “Scala Pilati”. Back then they were covered with a special roof and led to the Lateran Palace, close to the Chapel of St. Sylvester.

It was only in 1589, when the Lateran Palace lay in ruins, that Pope Sixtus V ordered the staircase to be moved to the Sancta Sanctorum where it can now be found. These stairs may only be ascended by pilgrims on their knees. Four additional staircases, which were also built in 1589, flank the Scala Sancta on each side.

In the 1700s the Scala Sancta were encased in wood in order to protect them. In 2019 the wood was removed as the stairs underwent restoration, and for a few weeks it was open to the public without the wood covering.

Facade of the Scala Sancta at Piazza di San Giovanni

Facade of the Scala Sancta at Piazza di San Giovanni.

The Scala Sancta can be found on the extraterritorial grounds of the Holy See in an edifice close to the Archbasilica of St. John. They lead to the Church of St. Lawrence, the personal chapel of early Popes.

The edifice is beautifully decorated with artworks from many famous artists. The frescoes were commissioned during the renovations ordered by Pope Sixtus V and led by Cesare Nebbai and Giovanni Guerra. Nebbai drew many of the sketches for the frescoes himself, but nobody is sure who of the seventeen artists painted which fresco.

The Scala Sancta has become an integral part of the Roman Catholic culture, symbolizing following in Jesus' footsteps to those who wish to honor his Passion. Replicas have been erected in several countries, such as Italy, Germany, France, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Canada and the United States. Many of these replicas have indulgences attached to them.

Ascending The Holy Stairs

Faithful pilgrims ascend the Scala Sancta on their knees

Faithful pilgrims ascend the Scala Sancta on their knees.

According to Roman Catholic tradition, ascending the stairs on your knees is an act of plenary indulgence, which is a way to lessen the amount of punishment you will receive for sins you have committed. Thus, for a Roman Catholic, climbing the stairs on your knees is a small price to pay for a happier afterlife.

Martin Luther prescribed to this belief and recited the Our Father on each of the steps, hoping that this act would save him from Purgatory, but still remaining slightly doubtful. Charles Dickens had a completely different view of the affair though and thought people were putting themselves through the painful experience just to look as though their faith was strong.

Whether either of them are right or wrong is not for us to say. But there is no doubt that those that make it to the top of the staircase on their knees have definitely undergone some sort of religious experience and the power of such experiences should not be underestimated.

The Scala Sancta at Le Calvaire de Pontchâteau

A replica of the Scala Sancta at Le Calvaire de Pontchâteau.

Whether pilgrims visit the authentic relic or one of the replicas, the sentiment behind the Holy Stairs remains the same. Pilgrims that ascend the stairs on their knees are undergoing a small discomfort compared to the pain and anguish Jesus faced during his passion.

Whether this small act of indulgence is enough to save the pilgrim from pain in the afterlife or even in purgatory is up to God to decide. But the fact remains that this experience will definitely bring some penance to those that choose to climb the 28 steps on their knees.

If you are planning on undertaking this pilgrimage, you can try what Martin Luther did and recite the Our Father on every step. The Holy prayer will give you time to fully appreciate the enormity of the Passion of Christ and what being Christian actually means.