The Scala Sancta
The Scala Sancta is a stairway of 28 white marble steps in a building near the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. Although they lead to the first private papal chapel (the Sancta Sanctorum) they’re actually important for a very different reason: According to Catholic tradition, they are the same steps that Jesus Christ walked up on his way to trial with Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. Religious pilgrims in Rome who visit the Holy Staircase ascend each of the 28 steps on their knees in return for the a sizable plenary indulgence (forgiveness of past sins) that amounts to 9 years for each step, as decreed by Pope Pius X.
Visiting the Scala Sancta: What to See
The Holy Staircase
In the 4th century A.D. Constantine the Great — the first Christian emperor of Rome — sent his mother Helena to the Holy land in search of holy relics. She came back with a king’s ransom of items associated with biblical stories and especially the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. She had so many that she built an entire church to house some of them – Rome’s Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. However, the largest relic that she managed to find and transport back, apparently in large pieces, was the Scala Sancta, or holy staircase. This was supposedly the staircase that Jesus ascended on his way to the court of Pontius Pilate. Exactly how she managed to extract and ship the stairs remains a mystery. But when you consider that the Romans also shipped giant obelisks weighing multiple tons all the way from Egypt to Rome, a set of stairs probably wasn’t the most difficult thing they had to deal with. In any case, she got them back and had them installed in the Lateran Palace. In 1589 they were moved again to their current location and a layer of wood was added to the tops of them. Today there are windows cut into the wood so pilgrims can see the stains supposedly left by the blood of Christ, whose own trip up them came after he had been scourged. Climbing the stairs while kneeling has been undertaken by everyone from popes to heretics, though not always with equal results. It’s said that a young Martin Luther tried and was only able to reach halfway.
At the top of the holy stairs is a room that used to be the most exclusive place in the entire Catholic world. The Sancta Sanctorum or “Holiest of Holies” was the Pope’s private chapel and none but him were allowed to enter and see the relics inside. These included the heads of St. Peter, Paul, and Agnes (who also has a lovely church on the Piazza Navona), as well as a fragment of the table upon which the last supper was eaten. These days the heads have moved to other churches but any visitors who will pony up the €3.50 can step inside and admire the frescoes by Cimabue.
The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran
St. John Lateran was the first major Christian church built in Rome. To this day, it remains the official cathedral of Rome (not St. Peter’s) and is the seat of the bishop of Rome, aka the Pope. Unfortunately, fires, vandals, and earthquakes over the years have damaged or destroyed much of the original church. It’s 16th and 17th-century restorations lend it a more baroque style but what a style it is! Its interior architecture literally set the standard for all other Christian churches in the West by outlining the classic basilica shape (cribbed from Roman buildings) of a central nave with double colonnades and a semicircular apse at one end. Frescoes, columns, mosaics and sculptures decorate nearly every inch of this interior, proudly demonstrating the words cut into the facade “The mother and head of all churches of the city and of the world.” The must-see sites in the church for Roman pilgrims are the column fresco by Giotto, the altar’s rich 1367 Gothic tabernacle—holding what the faithful believe are the heads of Sts. Peter and Paul, and the Baptistery built by Emperor Constantine in AD 315.
A Note on Relics
According to Catholic tradition. St. Helena is perhaps the most successful relic hunter of all time. She is credited with finding the True Cross, thorns from the crown of thorns, the nails used during the crucifixion, pieces of the rope with which Jesus was tied on the cross, the Holy Robe, and of course, the aforementioned staircase. She had Rome’s Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme built to house some of these relics, but naturally not just any old reliquary would do. Instead, she is said to have carted back an untold quantity of dirt from Golgotha, deposited it in Rome, and built her relic-filled church atop it. She was nothing if not thorough.
Tips for Visiting the Scala Sancta
The opening time of the Holy stairs differs throughout the year. From April through September they are open every day from 6.15am to noon, and then 3.30pm to 6.30pm. From October through March they are open every day from 6.15am to noon and then from 3:00pm to 6:00pm.
In order to visit the Sancta Sanctorum, you MUST book in advance and pay €3.50 per person. From April through September it is open every day from 10.30am to 11.30am and from 3.30pm to 4.30pm. From October through March it is open from 10.30am to 11.30am and from 3:00pm to 6:00pm daily.
The Scala Sancta are located in the Lateran Palace in the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano. This means that you can see them at the same time you go to see the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran but they aren’t in the same building.
As the name implies, the Holy Staircase is a holy place; as such appropriate attire must be worn by all who wish to see them. Both men and women should wear clothing that covers their shoulders and knees. Small bags and umbrellas are permitted inside but large bags have to be checked at the entrance, next to the official audio-guides desk.
If you wish to see the Sancta Sanctorum but do not want, or are unable to climb the holy stairs on your knees, you can use the normal staircases located on either side.
Climbing the Scala Sancta is free, but if you want to visit the Sancta Sanctorum you can book your tickets for €3.50 at firstname.lastname@example.org. There are specific prayers that pilgrims can recite on each step as they ascend the staircase. If you would like to do this you can purchase a prayer book at the front door for €2.00.
The Best Time to Visit the Scala Sancta
Due to its location slightly beyond the main pilgrimage areas, the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano doesn’t receive the same amount of foot traffic as some of the more centrally-located religious sites. Also, because climbing the Scala Sancta is typically only undertaken by the devout, lines to do so are often nowhere near as long as they are for other sites of interest. the entire process generally takes anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes to complete. Like all of Rome’s top attractions, you can guarantee the most intimate experience if you show up early which in this case is early indeed – 6:15am to be exact.
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