San Lorenzo in Palatio ad Sancta Sanctorum is a devotional church in an edifice having a 13th century core in a mainly 16th century structure. Here is the famous Scala Santa or "Holy Staircase" (Scala Sancta in Latin -the Italian loses a single letter). The address is Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano 14 in the rione Monti (the associated Oratorio del Santissimo Sacramento has a separate address, number 8).
The dedication is to St Lawrence.
Note that the name combines Italian: San Lorenzo in Palatio with Latin: ad Sancta Sanctorum.
Those aware of the history of the edifice might be aware that San Lorenzo was the original dedication of the present Sancta Sanctorum. However the present church is next to the latter, not identical with it -this is causing major confusion online.
The official name gives a clue, as the church is "at" (ad) the Sancta Sanctorum.
Please note that you can visit the church freely, but that the Sancta Sanctorum is only opened to supervised tours and that there is an admission charge. See section on "Access", below.
The Diocese has raised the status of a former private chapel in the complex to that of a fully functional public church.
The entire complex is an extraterritorial property of the Vatican City, which means that the freehold remains with the Republic of Italy but all government and administrative functions pertain to the Vatican.
The building contains several discrete elements:
Santuario Papale della Scala Santa. This is, of course, its main identity.
Sancta Sanctorum, the original mediaeval palace chapel at the top of the stairs (only visitable on a guided tour).
San Lorenzo in Palatio, the present church to the right of the above.
Cappella del Crocifisso, which is behind the Sancta Sanctorum (not usually visitable).
Oratorio di San Silvestro to the left of the Sancta Sanctorum, which is now the convent chapel and is not usually visitable.
Oratorio del Santissimo Sacramento, a confraternity chapel on the ground floor below the church of San Lorenzo in Palatio.
Passionist convent. The Passionists are in charge of the sanctuary and church.
(The ruins to the north of the convent are of the aqueduct of the Aqua Claudia.)
Sancta Sanctorum Edit
Palace layout Edit
For a more detailed history of the complex attached to Rome's cathedral basilica of the Lateran, see San Giovanni in Laterano. For a detailed plan of the old palace and the ancient remains under it and the basilica, see here. For a simplified plan showing the location of the chapel in relationship to the palace, see here (number 6).
In mediaeval times, the basilica was surrounded by a vast (for the time) array of subsidiary buildings. To the south was the monasterium, which was the residence of the priestly canons who officiated at the basilica. It was based around the surviving cloister there. To the north and stretching eastwards was the sprawling patriarchium, the actual residence of the popes. Just to the north of the basilica was a large court approximately corresponding to the present palazzo, with the large public meeting-hall or aula concilii on its west side and the loggia of blessings at its north-west corner. To the east of the court was a warren of buildings which was the palace proper, which also contained most of the curial offices administered by the papacy at the time. The pope's private chapel of San Lorenzo was on the first floor towards the north-east corner of this, itself adjacent to a small cloister and with the location of the scrinium sanctum or papal archives apparently on the ground floor below it.
The north range of the palace, of which this chapel was a part, ran westwards to connect with the north-east corner of the main court. In this was the ceremonial entrance to the palace, facing north and including an access stairway. The latter was to become the Scala Santa.
Early days Edit
The popes made the Lateran their residence in the early 4th century as soon as the emperor Constantine had built the basilica, but the first reference to a private palace chapel dedicated to St Lawrence is in the entry in the Liber Pontificalis for Pope Stephen III (768-72). Pope Gregory IV (827-44) is recorded as having refitted the papal apartment next to the chapel, the location where the pope actually slept, washed (if he bothered) and dressed.
The entry for Pope Leo III (795-816) shows the chapel becoming a major store of relics. It describes a chest of cypress wood (arca cypressina) being kept here, containing "many precious relics" used in liturgical processions. The famous full-length icon of Christ Santissimo Salvatore acheropita was one of the treasures, first mentioned in the reign of Pope Stephen II (752-7) but probably executed in the 5th century. The name acheropita is from the Greek acheiropoieta, meaning "made without hands" because its legend alleges that St Luke began painting it and an angel finished it for him.
13th century Edit
The name of the chapel became the Sancta Sanctorum in the early 13th century because of these relics -allegedly those of thirteen saints were kept here. A suggestion is that the name originally applied to the wooden relic-chest, as a Christian equivalent of the Jewish Ark of the Covenant.
Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) provided bronze reliquaries for the heads of SS Peter and Paul which were kept here then (they are now in the basilica), and also a silver-gilt covering for the Acheropita icon. The next pope, Honorius III, executed a major restoration of the chapel.
In 1277, during the reign of Pope Nicholas III, there was a major earthquake in Rome which seriously damaged the palace including the chapel. As a result, the pope ordered it rebuilt "from the ground" (a solo terrae) and decorated with "beautiful pictures" (in superiori parte testudinis picturis pulcherrimis ornatam -the word testudo literally means "tortoise", but Cicero is a Classical source for the derivative meaning of a vaulted chamber). The result is the chapel as we now have it. The consecration was in 1279.
Downfall of palace Edit
The popes moved to Avignon in France in 1309, then part of Papal territory, and stayed there until 1377. The Avignon Captivity was a disaster for the papacy, for the city of Rome and for the Lateran Palace. The citizens were terrorized by a feral nobility, and the population collapsed to below 15 000. The popes intended the palace to be maintained, but it predictably fell into decay as funds forwarded from Avignon for the purpose were misappropriated. There had already been a serious fire in 1307, and there was another major one in 1361 which left much of the palace in ruins. Both fires also caused major damage to the basilica.
When the popes returned, they never moved back in and eventually settled at the Vatican Palace which was rebuilt in 1447.
Scala Santa Edit
The legend attached to the Scala Santa is that the staircase used to be the access to the Praetorium in Jerusalem, which was the residence of Pontius Pilate as the governor of Judaea at the time of Christ's crucifixion. So Christ had to descend these stairs as he went from his condemnation by Pilate to Golgotha, shedding blood as he did so. The alleged stains of his blood are venerated on the second, eleventh and twenty-eighth steps.
Allegedly the twenty-eight steps were salvaged by St Helena, and brought to Rome when her son the emperor Constantine was having the neighbouring basilica built. They were then installed at the new palace of the popes.
Early mediaeval times Edit
Apart from more subtle arguments concerning the intentions of the interested parties at the time (for example, such a relic would have been taken to Constantinople the New Rome by Constantine), the major problem with the story is that it only appears late on in the mediaeval period. The early pilgrim itineraries, such as the Itinerarium of Einsiedeln of the 9th century, do not mention it -and this must be significant.
The Liber Pontificalis entry for Pope Sergius II (844-7) mentions that he was the one who had the staircase installed. It became known as the Scala Pilati, which literally means "staircase armed with javelins". An unprovable hypothesis is that this name originally referred to guards with javelins standing at the entrance to the palace, and that later the word pilati was taken to refer to Pontius Pilate -and so the legend was born.
The twenty-eight steps of white marble were described by Faustino Corsi in the early 19th century as being of marmo tirio, with the implication that the original quarry was in the present Lebanon. The marble type concerned was previously known as greco turchiniccio ("Turkish Greek"). Lebanon was certainly an ancient source of marble, and is so nowadays (see here), but no attempt seems yet to have been made to match the alleged Classical examples in Rome of so-called marmo tirio to modern quarries. This applies specifically to the Scala Santa.
It is most likely that the twenty-eight marble steps were looted as spolia from some high-status ancient building in order to provide an entrance stairway for the Papal apartments of the palace, which old depictions show as having an arcaded canopy or porch entered through a single arch and having two arches on either side supported by a pair of ancient columns. This was in the north frontage of the palace, and faced north on a location now occupied by the pedestrian piazza in front of the entrance to the Scala Santa.
The first unambiguous reference to the legend seems to be in a papal bull of Pope Paschal II (1099-1118).
After the popes returned to Rome in the 15th century, the old Lateran Palace was apparently left mostly derelict until Pope Sixtus V ordered it to be rebuilt in 1586. Domenico Fontana was the architect, and the process was carried out ruthlessly. The entire mediaeval complex was demolished, and replaced with the present smaller palace around its square courtyard north of the basilica. However, the pope ordered two architectural units preserved. One was the apse of the Triclinium Leoninum (see below), with its famous mosaic, and the other was the Sancta Sanctorum. Further, he ordered the Scala Santa to be salvaged and re-erected.
Fontana demolished everything around the Sancta Sanctorum, leaving it as the top storey of an isolated two-storey fragment. In front of it he built five parallel cross-vaulted staircases ascending from a longitudinal loggia, and installed the steps of the Scala Santa in the middle one. Flanking the Sancta Sanctorum he built two chapels, one on the right dedicated to St Lawrence (the present church), and one on the left which replaced an old oratory dedicated to Pope St Sylvester. The loggia was fronted by the present formal façade, which originally had five open arched portals (four were blocked up in the 19th century).
The walls and vaults of the interior were frescoed by a team of artists led by Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra -the project included the overpainting of the 13th century frescoes in the Sancta Sanctorum. Nebbia was responsible for overall design, as many drawings by him survive. The team was described by Giovanni Baglione writing in 1642 as including Giovanni Baglione, Paul Bril, Cesare Conti, Vincenzo Conti (these two were brothers), Baldassare Croce, Ferraù Fenzoni, Paolo Guidotti, Andrea Lilio, Paris Nogari, Prospero Orsi, Giovanni Battista Pozzo, Giovanni Battista Ricci, Ventura Salimbeni, Antonio Scalvati, Giacomo Stella, Cesare Torelli and Antonio Viviani. However which artist did which bit is not recorded, and so attributions have to be on stylistic grounds.
This work was completed by 1589, taking only two years. The shrine was dedicated in that year, and entrusted to a college of secular priests or guardians called the Collegio Sistino. The frescoes in the staircase landing were completed in the following year.
A description has been left of the transfer of the staircase. Each marble step was individually removed from its location in the old entrance stairway of the palace, and carried in procession to the new location. To make work easier and so that the sacred stairs did not have to be stashed temporarily, Fontana had the top step put at the bottom of the new staircase and the descending steps put in ascending order, so that the present arrangement is back to front compared to what it used to be.
Allegedly the custom then grew up that only the Pope was allowed into the Sancta Sanctorum.
The shrine became very popular for pilgrims when St Philip Neri included it in the itinerary of the Seven Churches devotion that he helped to propagate, as part of the pilgrim visit to San Giovanni in Laterano.
Oratorio del Santissimo Sacramento Edit
An oratory for the Lateran Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament (Arciconfraternita Lateranenese del Santissimo Sacramento) was established in the premises in 1661. There is much confusion online about the dates relevant to this.
The origins of the confraternity lie in the 14th century, when Pope Sixtus IV founded the Compagnia di San Giovanni in Laterano as a pious society of laymen who would accompany the Blessed Sacrament to sick people. Initially they were based at Santi Marcellino e Pietro al Laterano, but Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) arranged for them to have their own chapel in the basilica as well as the oratory of San Venanzio next to the baptistry. The latter was demolished to create the piazza in 1602, and the confraternity used a wooden shed near the obelisk. However in 1623 there were some violent arguments which led to the a breakup, and only in 1656 did a Roman priest called Giovanni Fortunati obtain authorization for a re-founding. This took some time, four years, but in 1661 the Guardians of the Scala Santa (then secular priests) was told to rent certain ground-floor rooms to the confraternity.
They immediately started to re-order their new accommodation, but broke through a load-bearing wall and so almost caused the collapse of the far right hand staircase in 1677.
In 1735 the confraternity began to fit out a new oratory, on the ground to the right hand side of the main edifice and below the Oratorio di San Lorenzo. The patrons and architect were Duke Giuseppe Sforza Cesarini and Prince Filippo Sforza Cesarini Savelli, and work was completed in 1765.
The headquarters of the confraternity has been here ever since, despite fires damaging the oratory in 1778 and 1857.
The wood Edit
The familiar wooden casing of the Scala Santa was not initially provided, but was ordered by Pope Innocent XIII in 1723 to stop the marble of the stairs being worn away by knees. The timber is walnut.
Triclinium Leoninum Edit
In 1743, the fake Triclinium Leoninum was built next to the far end of the oratory, facing south towards the basilica. Beware of modern descriptions suggesting that this is an original 9th century item. It is not.
The original Triclinium was a dining hall built in the palace for Pope Leo III in 796, on a site which is now under the main road due south of the Scala Santa. It had an apse in which the pope would sit to eat, and the conch of this had a famous mosaic. When the mediaeval palace was demolished in 1568, the apse wall with its conch and mosaic was left standing while the rest of the hall was destroyed. This orphan apse occurs in later depictions, facing north (not south, as now).
In 1625 there was a restoration sponsored by Francesco Barberini. Beforehand the Triclinium was obviously an architectural fragment, but the restoration provided a segmental pediment supported by Doric pilasters as well as a fronting balustrade and stucco decoration including commemorative tablets. See the article here for before-and-after engravings, as well as one showing the original location in relation to the Scala Santa.
In 1731 Pope Clement XII ordered the demolition of the apse because it was too close to the proposed new façade of the basilica. The back of the apse would have faced the façade, and would have been ugly. Apparently an effort was made to move the conch with its mosaic in one piece, but this failed and the work fell to pieces. The bits were then put in a nearby garden, until the new Triclinium was built by Ferdinando Fuga twelve years later on the instructions of Pope Benedict XIV. The new mosaic, allegedly a copy of the old, was provided by Pier Leone Ghezzi and bits of the old work went to the Vatican Museums. Most of the latter was lost.
19th century Edit
As mentioned, the sanctuary was originally under a college of individually salaried secular priests called the Guardians. This unsatisfactory arrangement ceased in the mid 19th century, when Pope Pius IX ordered a major restoration which involved the building of a Passionist convent. The Passionists have been in charge ever since they moved in in 1853, taking over the Oratorio di San Silvestro as their choir chapel.
The project was begun in 1851, under the supervision of Giovanni Azzurri. Structural work was completed in 1856. Unfortunately he died in 1858, and the finishing off was done by Vincenzo Martinucci. In the project, the open side arches of the loggia were blocked up to create the present atrium.
Improvement in transport meant that the number of pilgrims travelling to Rome increased massively in the latter part of the 19th century. In response, the Passionists extended their convent by building an upper storey in 1876. They also proposed a proper, full-sized church but the personal enthusiasm of Pope Pius IX for the project ceased when he died in 1878. As it happened, he was the last pope to celebrate Mass in the Sancta Sanctorum. His successor, Pope Leo XIII, was not very interested in the shrine.
20th century Edit
The campaign for a large church was taken up again by the Passionists in 1905. Pope St Pius X permitted a proper look at the relics in the Sancta Sanctorum (incredibly, no-one had done this for centuries). Most of the rich trove of devotional items that they found were forwarded to the Vatican Museums, comprising reliquaries, ivories, parchments and textiles. The relics themselves were re-enshrined, except for the heads of SS Peter and Paul (now in the basilica) and the head of St Agnes (now in Sant'Agnese in Agone). The Holy Prepuce (Foreskin of Christ) is sometimes described as one of the relics, but this had vanished in the early 16th century before the rebuilding.
Some of the finds are on display in a case in the Cappella di San Pio V, which is now part of the Museo Cristiano at the Vatican.
The Passionists then built a corridor linking their choir chapel with the church, running behind the Sancta Sanctorum, and Costantino Sneider was appointed to build a completely new church to the east. This did not get beyond its foundations before the project was abandoned in 1942, and it was finally decided that the Oratorio di San Lorenzo could serve as the church. This architect was responsible for the Roman churches of Santa Maria del Buon Consiglio a Porta Furba, Santa Maria Immacolata e San Giovanni Berchmans and Ognissanti. The brethren contented themselves with a new Oratorio del Crocifisso behind the Sancta Sanctorum, accessed by the corridor just mentioned.
The Sancta Sanctorum itself rather fell into obscurity in the latter half of the 20th century. Guidebooks described it as "never open". A much-needed restoration was begun in 1995, when it was decided to sacrifice the 17th century paintings in order to uncover the 13th century frescoes underneath. Since this has been finished, the chapel has been open to guided tours.
21st century Edit
After a fall-back in the later 20th century, the number of pilgrims visiting the Scala Santa picked up again substantially towards the turn of the millennium. This put serious pressure on the fabric, and the crowds of people in a badly-ventilated environment began to damage the frescoes.
The church itself, the former Oratorio di San Lorenzo, was restored in 2007 with funds from the Getty Foundation. This marked the start of a programme of complete restoration of all the 17th century frescoes, taking about a decade, but apparently the first grant was all spent in the preliminaries and on the frescoes of the church vault.
Restoration of the rest continued, although problems with further funding were mentioned in 2011. The Vatican Museums co-ordinated the effort.
A preliminary renovation of the wooden casing took place, then when the frescoes flanking the Scala Santa were restored the main stairs had to be closed for some time. Apparently some shock was expressed when chewing gum was found stuck to the wood in the cleaning process -the verbal message to any mamma is: "Don't make your children do this devotion if they don't want to!".
A video showing the removal of the wood covering the stairs can be seen here , as well as the removal of many prayers and petitions inserted under the planks. The dates on these pieces of paper suggest that there was a cleaning/renovation of sorts in the 1950s. It has been announced that pilgrims will be able to climb the steps with the boards removed from April 11th 2019, for a period of at least 40 days. It is hoped that the wooden covering will be replaced after Pentecost that year. This marks the end of the restoration programme.
Scala Santa Edit
The flat-roofed two-storey façade by Domenico Fontana is approached by a wide set of stairs with seven steps. The storeys are of approximately equal height. The first storey has five arches with Doric imposts and molded archivolts, which used to open onto the loggia. In between the arches are four Doric pilasters on high plinths and supporting a separating entablature with triglyphs on its frieze. Two pairs of conjoined pilasters occupy the corners of this storey.
The 19th century blocking of the four side arches is not attractive. The central arch is left open with a railing gate, but the two inner side ones now have doorways with molded doorcases and floating cornices over a pair of inscriptions together commemorating the restoration in 1853. The arch imposts are joined by matching string-courses to create lunette windows.
The second storey has a matching set of pilasters, except that these are Ionic. They support a roofline entablature with a frieze inscription reading: Sixtus V fecit, sanctoriq[ue] loco Scalam Sanctam posuit ("Sixtus V did this, and put the Holy Staircase in a holier place"). In between the pilasters are five rectangular windows which light a chamber above the vestibule which pertains to the convent. These have raised pediments which are either triangular or segmental, two of the former and three of the latter.
The fabric is rendered in pale pink, with architectural details in white.
Oratorio di Santissimo Sacramento Edit
If you look to the right of the façade of the Scala Santa, you will see a small flight of steps leading to a patio. There's a doorway at the far end, which is the entrance to the oratory. Don't expect to find it open, or to be able to visit if you do (if you are interested, try asking at the Scala Santa for details of any tours available).
The doorway itself is an attractive composition. Two ancient Doric columns in cipollino marble support a triangular pediment on two posts. The tympanum of the pediment has a relief of two winged putto's heads, and on the lintel of the door is an inscription declaring the oratory to belong to the confraternity.
If you look around the corner at the right hand side wall, you will see a row of three small rectangular windows, and another row of three larger ones above it. The former light the oratory, and the latter the church of San Lorenzo above it.
Triclinium Leoninum Edit
This has its own Italian Wikipedia page here.
The Triclinium is an 18th century monument, erected in 1743 by Ferdinando Fuga on the instructions of Pope Benedict XIV and provided with a mosaic by Pier Leone Ghezzi. This edifice is a copy on a different site of the late 8th century apse of a palace dining-hall (triclinium), and the mosaic a reproduction of an original one that was in the conch. There are doubts about its accuracy.
The structure is in brick, rendered in pale orange with architectural details in white. Two pairs of Doric pilasters on high limestone plinths at the corners support a horizontal entablature and flank the apse. The inner two of these pilasters are partially hidden by a further two in front, which support a triangular pediment on posts. The tympanum of the pediment contains the heraldic shield of Pope Benedict, and a large curved tablet in the apse with two smaller ones either side proclaim the history of the edifice and its rebuilding by the pope.
Between these tablets and the mosaic is a limestone frieze with an epigraph commemorating a restoration ordered by Pope Pius XI.
The mosaic itself is in two registers. The conch itself is a depiction of the appearance of the resurrected Christ to the eleven apostles as described at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, with the epigraph below recording what he said in the last two verses of that Gospel: Docete omnes gentes, baptizantes eos in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti; ecce ego vobiscum sum omnibus diebus usque ad consummationem saeculi ("Teach all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit; behold, I am with you on all days until the ending of the ages"). The book that he is holding reads Pax vobis ("peace to you"). The archivolt of the triumphal arch displays the first strophe of the hymn Gloria in excelsis Deo.
The spandrels of the arch display two scenes. The one on the left is not a copy of the original but a fake, because it is known that this portion of the mosaic had fallen off before the original apse was restored in 1625. The scene on the right shows St Peter giving a pallium to Pope Leo III, and a lance with a banner to Charlemagne. The left hand scene shows Christ giving the keys to St Peter and a banner to the emperor Constantine.
Sancta Sanctorum Edit
The upper part of the 1277 fabric of the Sancta Sanctorum protrudes from the adjacent constructions, but is invisible from the street. Since the chapel is almost square, it is provided with a pyramidal tiled roof. The walls are made of re-used ancient bricks, carefully selected and laid, and each has a round-headed stone frame containing a single-light Gothic window. The roofline cornice is in brick, with marble modillions. There is evidence that the original roof was in lead.
On entering, you will find yourself in an atrium with five parallel staircases in front of you. The holy one is in the middle. At the top is a landing with the entrance to the Sancta Sanctorum straight ahead, and that of the church to the right. To the left up there is the choir chapel of San Silvestro, which is not usually visitable.
Overview of frescoes Edit
Most of the fresco work which covers all the walls and vaults of the main and two inner side staircases belongs to the enormous decorative project executed by a talented team of artists headed by Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra, and completed in 1589. It focuses on the events of the Passion of Christ, and on the events prefiguring it in the Old Testament.
Modern scholars consider that the team included Giovanni Alberti, Cherubino Alberti, Giovanni Baglione, Paul Bril, Ercolino Bolognese, Cesare Conti, Vincenzo Conti (these two were brothers), Baldassare Croce, Ferraù Fenzoni, Giovanni Guerra, Paolo Guidotti, Andrea Lilio, Girolamo Nanni, Paris Nogari, Avanzino Nucci, Prospero Orsi, "Angelo da Orvieto", Giovanni Battista Pozzo, Giovanni Battista Ricci, Ventura Salimbeni, Antonio Scalvati, Giacomo Stella, Cesare Torelli and Antonio Viviani.
However which artist did which bit is not recorded, and so attributions have to be on stylistic grounds. Hence, there are divergences in scholarly attributions, and it should also be noted that a single scene might have been worked on by more than one artist (one doing the foreground figures and another the landscape background, for example).
The atrium vault frescoes are not really part of the scheme, which begins at the bottom of the Scala Santa with a pictorial presentation of the Passion of Christ. The landing at the top has three large frescoes of the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension as the culmination of this.
The other wall frescoes in the landing belong to the Old Testament cycles, which comprise Genesis in the left hand inner side staircase and Exodus in the right hand one. The narrative order of these is top to bottom.
The outer side staircases are not figuratively frescoed, but contain heraldry.
The detailed descriptions of the frescoes given below are from an article La Scala Santa by Elena Onori, Historia-Viterbo 2013.
The present atrium used to be an open loggia until it was walled up in a restoration ordered by Pope Pius IX, which was finished in 1856. It was provided with a set of rather academic large white marble devotional figurative sculptures in the process.
The atrium's vault has frescoed tondi by Paris Nogari, featuring Christ in the centre and Our Lady and St John the Baptist on either side. The end tondi have the heraldry of Pope Sixtus, who was of the Peretti family. These tondi are surrounded by angels holding Instruments of the Passion, as well as symbols associated with it.
The Scala Santa itself is flanked by a pair of matching sculptures showing The Kiss of Judas to the right, and Ecce Homo (Christ and Pilate) to the left. These are by Ignazio Jacometti. Further to the left is a Pietà by Tomasz Oskar Sosnowski (this used to be in the church), and then Christ Tied to the Column of Flagellation by Giosuè Meli with Pope Pius IX at Prayer by Sosnowski (the sculptor is showing off his skill in carving the tassels of the stole, but he cannot match Bernini). To the right is Christ in Gethsemane by Giuseppe Sartorio.
The actual Scala Santa Edit
The marble stairs of the Scala Santa are now protected with wooden boards, which have slits on the risers so that you can see the actual stone. On the second, eleventh and twenty-eighth steps are little peep-holes intended to show rust stains on the marble traditionally regarded as having been caused by Christ's blood.
The staircase is in one flight, and is shorter than those on either side. As a result, there is a short square entrance bay before the start of the ascent. The walls and vault of the staircase are decorated with frescoes intended to help you meditate on the Passion, in seven separate registers including the first one in the entrance bay. The other six have four scenes each, starting with one on the right hand wall, two on the barrel vault and one on the left hand wall. So, as you go up look to the right, then at the vault and then to the left.
The entrance bay has a cross-vault depicting The Four Evangelists by Prospero Orsi. This vault is flanked by a pair of archivolts, having matching stucco decorations including figures of the Four Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel). The large side wall frescoes forming the first register of the fresco cycle are The Washing of the Feet by Cesare Nebbia and The Last Supper by Nebbia and Angelo da Orvieto. Subsidiary scenes are Judas Accepts Thirty Pieces of Silver by Lilio, and Christ Predicts Peter's Denial by Nogari.
Now starts the staircase. The second register has Christ and the Apostles on the Way to Gethsemane by Nogari, The Agony in the Garden by Nogari, Christ Rebukes the Sleeping Apostles by Lilio or Nucci (the attribution is disputed) and The Angel Comforts Christ in the Garden by Nogari or Ercolino (ditto).
The third register has Christ Announces the Arrival of His Captors by Lilio, The Kiss of Judas by Orsi, St Peter Cuts Off the Ear of Malchus by Baglione and The Arrest of Christ by Viviani and Lilio from a drawing by Nebbia.
The fourth register is by Giovanni Battista Ricci. It has Christ Brought Before the High Priest, Christ Before Ananias, Christ Being Struck and Caiaphas Tearing his Clothes.
The fifth register has Christ Mocked By the Sanhedrin, by Ricci, The Denial of Peter by Baglione, Christ Before Pilate by Ricci and Judas Returns His Payment by Baldassare Croce.
The sixth register has Pilate Asks the Crowd about Christ by Ricci, Herod Dresses Christ in Purple by Ricci (?), Pilate's Wife Warns Him about Christ by Ricci, The Flagellation by Fenzoni and Salimbeni and The Crowning With Thorns by Nebbia.
The seventh register has Ecce Homo by Nebbia, Christ Meets the Women on the Way to Calvary by Nebbia, Christ is Stripped of His Clothes by Ricci and The Erection of the Cross by Fenzoni.
The top of the staircase ends with depictions of two prophets and Instruments of the Passion by Orsi.
Top landing Edit
The top of the staircase faces a Crucifixion by Nebbia, which is visible to you all the way up. It is over the door into the Scala Sanctorum. To the left is The Resurrection by Stella and Bril, and to the right is The Ascension by Nebbia. The ceiling is vaulted with three little domes, the central one over the Crucifixion depicting God the Eternal Father.
Genesis cycle Edit
The Old Testament cycle of frescoes featuring scenes from the Book of Genesis starts at the top of the near left hand side staircase.
Here are The Creation of Eve by Stella, and The Sacrifice of Isaac by Viviani and Bril, or Ricci. The staircase itself has the following scenes: The Trees of Life and Knowledge of Good and Evil by Bril and Guerra, The Original Sin by Salimbeni, The Expulsion from Paradise by Bril and Guidotti, The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel by Salimbeni, Croce or Fenzoni (no agreement as to the attribution), The Killing of Cain by Abel by Fenzoni, The Construction of Noah's Ark by Croce, The Flood by Bril, God's Covenant with Noah in the Rainbow by Croce, The Drunkenness of Noah by Bril and Stella, Abraham and Isaac Going to the Sacrifice by Bril and Viviani, Esau Sells His Birthright by Orsi, Jacob's Ladder by Viviani, Jacob's Sacrifice at Bethel by Antonio da Orvieto, Jacob Wrestles with an Angel by Viviani, Joseph Thrown into the Pit by Viviani, The Finding of Moses in the Rushes by Baglione, The Staff of Moses Turns into a Serpent by Lilio, and The Staff of Moses as a Serpent Eats Those of the Magicians by Lilio.
Exodus cycle Edit
The corresponding near right hand side staircase continues the storyline from the Book of Exodus, which carries on into the time of the Kings. In the landing at the top are The Institution of the Passover by Nogari or Conti and The Bronze Serpent by Fenzoni. In the staircase are The Crossing of the Red Sea by Guidotti, The Pillar of Fire Protecting the People and The Drowning of the Egyptians by Orsi, Moses Makes the Bitter Water Sweet by Guidotti, Moses Brings Water from the Rock by Lilio, The Battle of Joshua with the Amalekites by Stella, The Ark of the Covenant by Croce, The Seven-Branched Candlestick by Stella (?), Aaron With the Blood of the Sacrifice by Croce, Moses Consecrates Aaron and his Sons as Priests by Croce, The Offering of Reconciliation by Moses by Croce, Moses with the Fruits of Canaan by Nogari, Gideon Conquers the Midianites by Stella, Samson Kills the Lion by Guidotti and Nanni, Samson Uprooting the Gates of Gaza by Stella and Bril, Samson Demolishes the Temple of Dagon by Stella, David Soothes Saul with the Harp by Stella, David and Goliath by Orsi, Jonah Thrown into the Sea by Bril and Jonah Returned to the Land by the Whale by Bril.
The Church Edit
The entrance to the church is through the doorway at the right hand end of the landing.
The nave is rectangular, with three bays. There is a separate sanctuary of the same width as the nave but with a lower ceiling, which was re-fitted in the late 20th century by the Passionist architect Ottaviano D'Egidio. This is entered through three rectangular portals, the central one much wider than the side ones and separated by a pair of Doric columns in what looks like red and white jasper. The columns here support an entablature running around the church interior, which is otherwise unsupported by columns or pilasters. The gilded frieze bears a quotation from St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, first chapter: Nos autem praedicamus Christum crucifixum, Iudeis quidem scandalum gentibus autem stultitiam, ipsis autem vocatis, Iudeis atque Graecis, Christum Dei virtutem et Dei sapientiam. Non enim iudicavi me scire aliquid inter vos nisi I[esum] et hunc crucifixum.
The frecoed ceiling vault of the nave has three lunettes on each side. The central panel depicts The Glory of the Trinity, and the eight panels on the vault springers depict Doctors of the Church (SS Basil, Ambrose, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Jerome, Gregory the Great and John Chrysostom). Four of the six lunette coves have angels with Instruments of the Passion, and the other two allegories of Faith and Charity. On the right, above the windows, are three lunette panels and there is one in the middle bay on the left which contain bucolic landscapes by Bril. All these frescoes have been very well restored recently.
At either end of the church there is a large lunette above the entablature and fitted into the vault, which has a central panel showing angels playing musical instruments, flanked by a pair of prophets.
The near and far bays on the left hand side are occupied by tall arches, which incorporate the lunettes here and break the entablature. The near one contains the entrance, but the far one leads into a little chapel dedicated to St Lawrence. Here is an altarpiece fresco depicting The Apotheosis of St Lawrence possibly by Croce.
There are three windows on the right hand side, containing modern stained glass roundels depicting symbols of the Passion within the Crown of Thorns.
The former apse with its altar is now occupied by the organ, and is cordoned off by a railing screen in the form of squares. This evokes the gridiron on which St Lawrence was traditionally martyred. In front of this is a large gilded tabernacle for the Blessed Sacrament which has an elliptical door, and in front of that again and actually in the nave is the free-standing modern altar which incorporates more iron grid-work. In the apse there used to be a large crucifix, but this is now in the Cappella del Crocifisso. The high altar is dedicated to the Crucifixion, which is why there is a side chapel dedicated to St Lawrence.
The pedimented doorway on the left in the middle bay leads into the Sancta Sanctorum, but you cannot access the latter this way. There is an ornate relief coat-of-arms of Pope Sixtus V above the triangular pediment. The massive bronze doors are decorated with a pair of stylized wreaths, and it is suggested that they might be 4th century. If so, they are the oldest survival from the former papal palace.
Sancta Sanctorum Edit
The Sancta Sanctorum is a precious mediaeval survival, and well worth the cost of the guided tour that you will need to join to see it. The 13th century fresco work is spectacular, and the recent restoration has restored the original bright colours.
The present structure is a rebuilding of the original 8th century structure ordered by Pope Nicholas III and completed in 1279. The original entrance is the one from the church, through the bronze doors just mentioned. To the left of anyone entering through these is an inscription reading Magister Cosmatus fecit hoc opus, indicating that the Cosmati family was in charge of the project.
The nave is on a square plan, seven metres on each side and an adjacent rectangular apse measuring 2.73 by 5.85 metres.
The nave walls have three horizontal registers each. Apart from the apse end, the lower walls are clad in re-used ancient marble revetting slabs of two kinds of marble, one white with dark grey veins and one light grey with white streaks.
Above in each of all four walls is the second register, an identical arcade of seven Gothic arches with ogee tops, separated by twisted columns with in two styles. Some are singly twisted (barley-sugar or Solomonic), while others are also molded in their twists (more Gothic). These arches contain frescoes of saints, twenty-six in total. The missing two figures are replaced by relic-cupboards with gilded gridded doors, visible above the apse. The corners of the nave have thin gilded columns supporting the vault springers, which begin at the top of the arcades.
The third register is bounded by the vault arch on each side, which is slightly pointed. Each wall contains a single-light Gothic window in a dished frame, flanked by a pair of figurative fresco panels. The ceiling is a straightforward cross-vault, with ribs meeting at an undersized foliated boss.
There is a superb Cosmatesque floor with roundels in porphyry, although the outer zones of this near the walls is laid with further re-used ancient marble revetting slabs. On these choir stalls used to stand, but these have been removed.
The east wall arcade, above the apse, shows the Madonna and Child in the middle, flanked by SS John the Baptist (left) and St John the Evangelist. Then on either side come two relic cupboards, with doors in the form of gilded open metal grids. Each of these has a little figurative fresco above and below. To the left, on top is the Hand of God holding a Eucharistic host, and at the bottom The Fall of the Manna. To the right on top there is an angel with a piece of stone, thought to be a fragment of the Holy Sepulchre once kept here, and a procession with a reliquary at the bottom. The latter is allegedly the removal of the relics of SS Marianus and Diodorus from catacombs on the Via Salaria to here by Pope Stephen VI in 896.
The two fresco panels in the top register are surrounded by decorative elements on a red background, which match those on the other three walls. At the top, flanking the window arch, is a pair of angels and at the sides are a pair of vases emitting vine-scrolls. Note the two blackbirds pecking at grapes dangling from each vase.
The two frescoes flanking the east window show, to the left, Pope Nicholas III offering the chapel and accompanied by SS Peter and Paul. The depiction of the model of the chapel is thought to be an accurate renditioning of its appearance at the time. To the right is a depiction of Christ the King, to whom the chapel is being offered.
The south wall arcade shows SS Peter, James the Great, Bartholomew and Stephen, with three other anonymous apostles. Above, the fresco panels show The Crucifixion of St Peter to the left, and The Beheading of St Paul to the right.
The west wall arcade shows SS Francis, Nicholas (?), Gregory the Great, Sylvester (?), Denis of Paris (?), Benedict and Dominic. The fresco panels show The Stoning of St Stephen and The Martyrdom of St Lawrence.
The north wall arcade shows SS Lawrence, John the Evangelist, Paul, Luke (?), Matthew (?) and two anonymous apostles. The fresco panels show The Beheading of St Agnes to the left, and St Nicholas Gives a Dowry to Three Poor Girls to the right. The tradition behind the latter scene is that the family of the girls was so poor that the girls had no clothes, which is why they are shown in bed.
The vault is in deep blue, with the symbols of the four Evangelists.
The sanctuary is entered through three rectangular portals, the central one being wider and separated by a pair of porphyry columns with gilded Composite capitals. These support an entablature with Cosmatesque mosaic work on its architrave and a gilded epigraph on its frieze reading Non est in toto sanctior orbe locus ("There is not a holier place in all the world"). The walls of the sanctuary are revetted with marble slabs of the same sort as the nave, except for two porphyry ones behind the altar.
The ceiling is barrel-vaulted, with lunettes having smoothed-out angles. This is so that the vault can bear its mosaic, which is of the same date at the rest of the chapel despite its archaic style. In the centre is Christ the King (Pantocrator) in a large tondo or clipeus, supported by four angels. The vault lunettes contain portrait busts of saints, which over the altar are SS Agnes, Peter, Paul and Lawrence. To the left side is St Nicholas, and to the right side St Stephen. The lunettes behind the entrance entablature, only visible to anybody actually in the sanctuary, depict six sanctuary lamps.
The famous icon of Christ "painted without (the use of human) hands" is enthroned on the altar. It is tentatively dated to the mid 5th century, but there is so little left of the original paintwork that this is uncertain. If true, it would be the oldest icon in Rome. The first documentary mention is in the reign of Pope Stephen II (752-7), when it was taken in procession in the face of a barbarian invasion.
The actual work was painted in encaustic on a linen backing framed in walnut, and represent Christ seated on a throne with a backrest encrusted with jewels. One hand blesses, and the other holds a scroll. Of all this, you can only see the face which was re-painted in the reign of Pope Alexander III (1159-81). The rest is covered with a chased and jewelled silver-gilt cover which was added in the reign of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), who is commemorated in an inscription on it. This cover has little relief depictions of the thirteen saints enshrined in the chapel, together with the symbols of the Evangelists. There used to be three holes at breast-height and one larger one at the feet, and these were used in a ceremony where the hands and feet of the image were washed with perfumed water. The top three holes were closed with silver discs in about 1400, which have enamel representations of the Crucifixion, Nativity and the Coronation of Our Lady. The hole over the foot has a rectangular shutter with four little scenes from the history of the Confraternita del Santissimo Salvatore, founded in 1318 to propagate the veneration of the icon.
The two lateral panels were added in the 15th century, each consisting of four silver-gilt reliefs of Our Lady with the angel of the Annunciation at the top, and six saints.
The altar itself has a railing grid, evoking the gridiron of St Lawrence and imitated in the modern re-fitting of the sanctuary of the church next door. The grid protects the original wooden relic-chest installed here at the start of the 9th century.
Cappella del Crocifisso Edit
The corridor running round the back of the Sancta Sanctorum, accessed by a door in the top left hand corner of the church, leads into the 20th century Oratory of the Crucifix. This has a 14th or 15th century painted wooden crucifix, restored and installed here in 1988. It is surrounded by iron railings bearing scenes from the Passion as well as portraits of Passionist saints. There is a side altar to the left, dedicated to St Paul of the Cross the founder of the Passionists and which has an anonymous depiction of his Apotheosis. To the right is a bronze bust of a well-loved Passionist priest called Candido Amantini, who was based here from 1961 until his death in 1992 and who had a great care for pilgrims and those in need of spiritual help. There is some hope for his beatification.
Cappella di San Silvestro Edit
The chapel dedicated to Pope St Sylvester is the choir chapel of the Passionists, and is to the left of the Sancta Sanctorum. The vault was frescoed by Giovanni and Cherubino Alberti, and depicts The Symbolism of the Papacy of Sixtus V. Heraldic symbols referring to Pope Sixtus V are featured. The lunettes and side panels feature more landscapes by Bril, again very well restored after being almost completely obscured by filth.
The altarpiece is a fresco of St Sylvester who is depicted with the countenance of Sixtus V, but the altar itself is polychrome marble work dating from 1727.
Oratorio del Santissimo Sacramento Edit
The Oratory of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament is below the church, but has its own separate entrance at the side of the shrine.
The oratory itself has a nave of three bays, each bay having a cross-vault and the bays separated by transverse vault arches. There is a very shallow sanctuary apse.
The decoration is 18th century, with the walls embellished in polychrome marble work. The vault panels have attractive fresco tondi in blue, including a set of four featuring allegorical symbols of Christ -Pelican in Her Piety, cypress, oak tree and the Lamb of God.
One side wall has a cantoria or balcony for musicians, over a very large stucco winged putto's head. It has a central fresco tondo showing the Blessed Sacrament with SS John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.
The main altar has an icon of the Madonna and Child in Byzantine style, supported by stucco putti. A pair of Ionic columns in yellow Siena marble support a segmental pediment, and the frontal is in polychrome stones featuring more yellow Siena, verde antico and a red and white marble.
A side altar dedicated to the Crucifix features re-used Renaissance elements, including a marble panel with grotesque relief decoration. The segmental pediment is supported by a pair of very skinny twisted Solomonic columns, obviously from elsewhere. The altarpiece is a little painted icon of the Crucifix, which looks 15th century. The pediment is broken at the top, and a relief of the Pelican in Piety inserted.
The premises of the Confraternity also include several side rooms, some including early mediaeval fabric. Here are very old fresco fragments recently restored, including what is thought to be the oldest extant depiction of St Augustine -about the year 600. There is also a striking depiction of the martyrdom of St Sebastian.
Other mediaeval remains Edit
The north-east corner of the ground floor of the shrine block, to the north of the Oratory of the Sacrament, is part of the convent and is inaccessible to ordinary visitors. Here are certain surviving mediaeval chambers from the old palace, possibly part of the papal archives, which were cleared out in 1905 and restored in 1968.
The first chamber looks like the base of a brick tower, with evidence of two windows, which is thought to have been erected by Pope Zachariah (741-52) and destroyed in an earthquake in 904.
The second chamber has two columns in cipollino marble supporting a fragment of entablature which seems to have been a subsidiary doorway to the palace; here also are remains of a mosaic of the Lamb of God dating to about 1200.
The third chamber has fresco fragments thought to be 9th century, including what is interpreted as depicting The Burial of St John the Evangelist.
Scala Santa Edit
The church and Scala Santa are open:
Weekdays 6:00 to 13:00, 15:00 to 18:30 (19:00 in summer),
Sundays and Solemnities 7:00 to 12:30, then as for weekdays.
Entry to the stairs is free to all comers. However, the Holy Stairs are only ascended on the knees by visitors. Nobody descends by them. If you wish to go up by walking you MUST use the flanking staircases, and these are also the way you go down.
Ascending the Scala Santa is a demanding devotion, and sometimes people start feeling unwell during it. If you do, inform those around you -don't just get up and start walking.
People do ask -no, the maintenance staff are not expected to remain on their knees when cleaning the Scala Santa!
Sancta Sanctorum Edit
Please note that the church is not the mediaeval chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum. Access to the latter is by guided tour only, for which there is a charge and which you book at the entrance to the Scala Santa. The chapel is open to tours (as at June 2018):
9:30 to 12:40 and 15:00 to 17:10, weekdays only (closed on Sundays and Solemnities). The cost of the ticket is € 3.50 per person.
The Diocese now provides a generous availability of the sacraments at this church.
This is partly owing to the availability of a plenary indulgence to those who prayerfully climb the stairs on Fridays in Lent and on Good Friday while meditating on the Passion "with a contrite heart". This is subject to the usual conditions of making a Confession, receiving Holy Communion and praying for the intentions of the Pope. You can go up the side stairs to the church for Confession and Communion, say the prayer (traditionally a Hail Mary or the Lord's Prayer) for the Holy Father's intentions and then go back down to make the ascent. The tradition is to say a Hail Mary on each step.
However, if you want to use more focused prayers on the stairs there is a very good set here which can be downloaded as a PDF file.
The Holy Father is at liberty to proclaim this plenary indulgence for any other day of the year. The information on display at the Scala Santa entrance should make this clear if so. Otherwise, other days have a partial indulgence on offer.
If the Scala Santa is crowded, you can obtain the indulgence by using one of the side staircases. Beware -if you do this, not only will you in the way of people walking up and down, but also the stairs here are in bare stone and are very uncomfortable to kneel on! The main stairs are clad in well-worn wood, and are fairly comfortable to the knees.
Mass is celebrated (shrine website, June 2018):
Weekdays 6:30, 7:00, 9:00, 17:30,
Sundays 7:30, 9:30, 11:30, 17:30.
Confession is available:
Weekdays 7:00 to 7:30, 9:00 to 12:00 and 15:00 to 18:00,
Sundays 7:30 to 12:00, 15:00 to 18:00.
Rome's other Scala Santa Edit
Owing to the popularity of the devotion, copies of the Scala Santa have been installed in several places in Europe and at Pittsburgh in the USA. The latter set has its own web-page here. A Wikipedia list is here.
Another Scala Santa in Rome is at the Dutch church of Santi Michele e Magno near St Peter's. In the Borgo Santo Spirito to the north of the church there is a pedimented doorway labelled Scala Santa, with a fresco of the suffering Christ over it. This door is frequently locked, but when the church is open you can access the stairs from the inside.
The writer has performed the Scala Santa devotion here as well as at the Lateran, and has the impression that the stairs here are slightly steeper and more challenging. Also, the marble is uncovered and performing the devotion HURT!
Nolli map (Scala Santa 15, oratory of the Blessed Sacrament 16, Triclinium 17)