The Scala Sancta (English: Holy Stairs, Italian: Scala Santa) are a set of 28 white marble steps located within a building in Rome near the Lateran Basilica and is an extraterritorial property of the Holy See. The steps, long encased in a protective framework of wooden steps, are located in a building that incorporates part of the old Lateran Palace. The stairs lead to the Sancta Sanctorum (English: Holy of Holies), the personal chapel of the early Popes known as the chapel of St. Lawrence.
According to the Catholic tradition, they are the steps leading up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem on which Jesus Christ stepped on his way to trial during the events known as the Passion. The stairs were, reputedly, brought to Rome by St. Helena in the fourth century. For centuries, the Scala Sancta has attracted Christian pilgrims who wish to honor the Passion of Jesus.
Medieval legends claim that the Holy Stairs were brought from Jerusalem to Rome about 326 by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. In the Middle Ages, they were known as Scala Pilati or "Stairs of Pilate". From old plans it appears that they led to a corridor of the Lateran Palace, near the Chapel of St. Sylvester, and were covered with a special roof. In 1589, Sixtus V had the papal palace, then in ruins, demolished to make way for the construction of a new one, he ordered the Holy Stairs be reconstructed in their present location, before the Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies), named for the many precious relics preserved there, including the celebrated icon of Santissimi Salvatore Acheiropoieton ("not made by human hands") which on certain occasions used to be carried through Rome in procession. These holy treasures, which since Leo X (1513–21) had not been seen by anybody, have been the object of dissertations by Grisar and Lauer.[when?]
The Scala Sancta are encased in protective wood and may only be ascended on the knees. For common use, the staircase is flanked by four additional staircases, two on each side, constructed around 1589. Climbing the Holy Stairs on one's knees is a devotion much in favor with pilgrims and the faithful. Several popes have performed the devotion. As part of the ceremonies opening the Holy Year in 1933, Cardinal Francesco Marchetti Selvaggiani, Vicar of Rome, led a crowd of hundreds in mounting the steps on their knees.
The decoration of the Scala Santa was one of the major refurbishment exercises of the papacy of Sixtus V, led by Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra and occupying a crew of artists to decorate frescoes including Giovanni Baglione, Giacomo Stella, Giovanni Battista Pozzo, Paris Nogari, Prospero Orsi, Ferraù Fenzoni, Paul Bril, Paulo Guidotti, Giovanni Battista Ricci, Cesare Torelli, Antonio Vivarini, Andrea Lilio, Cesare and Vincenzo Conti Baldassare Croce, Ventura Salimbeni, and Antonio Scalvati. Numerous preliminary drawings by Nebbia exist for these frescoes, though it is not exactly known with certainty who painted which fresco.
Scala Sancta in the Catholic Church
In the Catholic Church, a plenary indulgence has been granted for climbing the stairs on the knees. Pius VII on 2 September 1817 granted those who ascend the stairs in the prescribed manner an indulgence of nine years for every step. Finally Pius X, on 26 February 1908, granted a plenary indulgence to be gained as often as the stairs are devoutly ascended after confession and communion.
Martin Luther allegedly climbed these steps on his knees in 1512. As he did so, he repeated the Pater Nosters. "Luther was one day devoutly climbing these steps, when suddenly a voice like thunder seemed to say to him: The just shall live by faith. Romans 1:17. He sprang to his feet and hastened from the place in shame and horror. That text never lost its power upon his soul. From that time he saw more clearly than ever before the fallacy of trusting to human works for salvation, and the necessity of constant faith in the merits of Christ. His eyes had been opened, and were never again to be closed, to the delusions of the papacy." He believed that this recollection was a prompting from the Holy Spirit admonishing him to rely on faith alone, rather than works. This was later described as a turning point in his life. However, the veracity of this account is uncertain.
Charles Dickens, after visiting the Scala Sancta in 1845, wrote: "I never, in my life, saw anything at once so ridiculous and so unpleasant as this sight." He described the scene of pilgrims ascending the staircase on their knees as a "dangerous reliance on outward observances".
Copies of the Scala Sancta
Imitations of the Scala Sancta have been erected in several locations and indulgences were often attached to them.
- Ducal palace, Mantua, 1614-15 by Ferdinando Gonzaga, then a cardinal, later Duke of Mantua
- Sacro Monte di Varallo, Piedmont, Italy
- St Paul's Church, Campli, Italy ( ): Pope Clement XIV acknowledged Campli in 1772 with the ownership of the Holy Stairs.
- San Girolamo, Reggio Emilia
- Veroli, Italy
- Heilig-Kreuz Kirche, Bad Tölz, Germany ( )
- Kreuzbergkirche, Bonn, Germany ( ): Clemens August of Bavaria, ordered the retrofitting of this church with a "Scala Sancta" according to the plans of the Baroque architect Balthasar Neumann. It was constructed between 1745 and 1751.
- Basilica of Sainte Anne d'Auray, France ( )
- Františkánsky kostol Nepoškvrneného Počatia Panny Márie, Malacky, Slovakia
- St. Patrick — St. Stanislaus Kostka Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
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- Church of Our Lady and St. Charlemagne in Karlov, Prague, Bohemia, Czech Republic, 1708-1711
- Loretto Chapel in Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic
- Chapel of the Holy Stairs in the Monastery on the Mountain of the Mother of God in Dolní Hedeč, Králíky, Eastern Bohemia, Czech Republic
- Pilgrim Chapel of the Holy Stairs in Rumburk, Bohemia, Czech Republic, 1767-1770
- Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, outside Quebec City, Canada
- Holy Family Chapel, Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, Nazareth, Michigan, United States
- The Cross in the Woods Shrine, Indian River, Michigan, United States
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