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Traveling Rome: Scala Scanta

Updated on October 10, 2013

Rome, the ancient city. Home to the ruins of the greatest empire ruled by man, power seat of the Catholic world, and the capitol of pick-pocketing. In my new series, I’ll take you through the history of some of the greatest sights in the ancient city and give you some practical advice if you plan on visiting there yourselves. So without further ed-do, I present to you, Rome.

Scala Sancta. Enter here.
Scala Sancta. Enter here. | Source
A markerscala sancta -
Pilatès Stairs, Piazza San giovanni In Laterano, 14, 00185 Rome, Italy
get directions

6:30am to 12:00pm and 3:30pm to 6:00pm
Metro A to San Giovanni.
As a Catholic site you are required to cover your shoulders and knees.
Front entrance to the Scala Sancta.
Front entrance to the Scala Sancta. | Source

The History

The Scala Sancta translates simply into “Holy Stairs.” Now you may wonder, what makes a set of stairs holy? Well, that would turn out to be a truly miraculous story. According to medieval legend, it was St. Helena, mother of Constantine, who brought the set of 28 marble steps from Jerusalem to Rome around 326 AD. In medieval times, the stairs would be installed inside the Lateran Palace, which is the estate that the Popes lived in. During that time, the stairs would go by the name of Scala Pilati or The Stairs of Pilate. That’s because, according to the legend of St. Helena, the stairs were originally from the palace of Pilate, which Jesus Christ ascended on the day he would be condemned to die. You can see why some people might be excited by that. When the original Lateran Palace was destroyed for the construction of a new one in 1589, Pope Sixtus V had the stairs reinstalled in a corridor that lead up into the Pope’s private chapel dedicated to St. Lawrence. During the time, this chapel would house some of the most holy of relics brought into Rome including, according to legend, the heads of Peter and Paul and the table used at the last Super. Because of the numerous relics once housed there, the chapel became known as Sancta Sanctorum or the Holiest of Holies, which is the name for the inner tabernacle of the Temple of Jerusalem where the Ark of the Covenant was once kept. The Scala Sancta and Sancta Sanctorum remain in this spot to this very day, through the rest of the Lateran Palace have long since been torn down or converted to new purposes.

That's a big Obelisk.
That's a big Obelisk. | Source
Latin inscription.
Latin inscription. | Source

The Lateran Obelisk

Before entering the Scala Sancta, take a moment to admire the Lateran Obelisk in the Piazza di San Giovanni. The obelisk is the largest ancient Egyptian obelisk still standing in the modern world and also the tallest in all of Rome. Sometime around 1470 BC, the Egyptian pharoh Tuthmosis III had it commissioned as a unique obelisk designed to stand on its own. This was unique because most obelisks were constructed in pairs which may explain why it was built so large, cut out of a single stone. Tuthmosis III would die before its completion and it would sit abandoned in the stone quarry for 35 years before his grandson would finish it and place it in front of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian god Amun in Karnak. It would remain there for centuries until Emperor Constantine would take a liking to it and order it to be moved to his new capital in Constantinople. It would never make it there, however. Constantine would die before it was removed and his son, Constantius, would relocate it to Rome where it was installed in the Circus Maximus in the 4th century AD. It remained there for hundreds of years, eventually falling over and shattering into three pieces before being buried in mud as Ancient Rome fell apart. Pope Sixtus V had it excavated and moved to its current location when he constructed the new Lateran Palace in 1588 AD and added the cross sitting atop the obelisk now. Added trivia, the Latin inscription at the base of the Lateran Obelisk describes its journey to Rome and the baptism of Constantine at the nearby Basilica di San GiovannI. This baptism is a complete fabrication however, as Constantine was baptized on his deathbed in Constantinople.

The Scala Scanta
The Scala Scanta | Source

The Scala Scanta

Upon entering the Scala Sancta, you’ll be immediately greeted by five sets of stairs. Covering all the walls and ceilings are a series of beautiful fresco commissioned by Pope Sixtus V and can be enjoyed before, during, and after your ascent of the stairs. For the ascent, you have a decision to make. By now you have probably noticed that something interesting is happening with the center staircase, namely that everyone going up it is slowly ascending on their knees. That’s right, if you are planning to go up the holiest set of stairs in the world you’re going to have to walk up on your knees, and you’re going to have to have 28 different prayers ready. After their fame as a site of pilgrimage grew, the Popes decreed that pilgrims should ascend the stairs in the same manner as Jesus and pray on each of the 28 steps. Doing this would give the Catholic pilgrim access to a plenary indulgence for each step. Each stair is contained inside a wooden plank with the odd window viewing the original marble step. Many windows also show dark stains which are believed to be the blood of Christ. To those with bad knees or not interested in the holy practice, the other four staircases can be walked up in a completely normal manner.

The Holy of Holies
The Holy of Holies | Source

Sancta Sanctorum

Atop the Scala Sancta is the Sancta Sanctorum. While once the home to countless holy relics, these days it only has a small handful. This doesn't mean that it’s any less spectacular. Inside the chapel are a variety of beautiful mosaics and frescoes depicting a variety of Biblical scenes. Perhaps the most famous is the Santissimi Salvatore Acheiropoieton. Acheiropoieton roughly means “not made by human hands.” The legend goes that St. Luke began the painting, but that it was finished by angels. It was removed many times by various Popes to be paraded around the city of Rome during important celebrations and was even used by Pope Stephen II in 750 AD to repel an attack on Rome. While the painting has been refurbished and modified several times over the years, many inhabitants of Rome still believe it to be able to ward off dangers. Also contained in the Sancta Sanctorum is a glass box inside of which is a wooden fragment believed to be from the table used at the Last Supper.

Before Leaving

Before leaving the Scala Sancta make sure to visit the gift shop located at the top of the stairs. Inside the shop are many knickknacks, pictures, and books related to the Catholic sites around the city. While you can find many of the same knickknacks in stands around the city, inside the holy sights of Rome the stores are run by Catholic nuns. The Italian women are usually a deal more pleasant to deal with then the loud and desperate vendors on the streets.


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