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Ascending the Scala Sancta

16 November 2017

By Louise Cowley

My journey to Rome led me to the Scala Sancta, otherwise known as ‘The Holy Stairs’ that Christ ascended to be judged by Pontius Pilate. Located near the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, it was not immediately obvious what the building contained, partly due to a huge Toyota advert hanging high above the entrance. Nearby, two armed guards chatted by a tank; not the most obvious place to contemplate the Passion of Christ.

In common with many relics of Christ’s Passion, there is comparatively very little information available concerning the Holy Stairs. An oblique reference to them is sometimes acknowledged in the Liber Pontificalis (book of the Popes) dating from the time of Sergius II (844-847) but this does not specifically refer to a staircase. The first clear reference is from a Papal Bull issued by Pope Pascal during the 12th century. According to tradition, St Helena brought the white marble steps back from her pilgrimage in Jerusalem during the 4th century. Although this seems beyond the realms of possibility, we have to remember that the Romans had shipped giant obelisks weighing tons from Egypt to Rome therefore they were definitely capable of dismantling and shipping marble steps. If this tradition is true, it is more than likely that these are the genuine steps, as the Romans would have been well aware of the site of Pilate’s palace.

By the time the Popes had returned to Rome in the 15th century, the old Lateran Palace that housed the steps, had become derelict and it was in 1589, that Pope Sixtus V, had the steps transferred to their present location. Domenico Fontana, the architect, apparently had the top step placed at the bottom of the new staircase and the descending steps put in ascending order so that the sacred steps did not have to be stored temporarily, thus saving time. This means that the last step taken by Christ towards Pilate is now the first step of the Scala Sancta.

But has there been any comparison of the marble steps with similar marble from the Middle East or from Rome?

In the early 19th century, Faustino Corsi, a Roman lawyer and collector of decorative stones used by the ancient Romans,  identified the marble type as marmo tirio, originating from present day Lebanon which borders Israel.

This is the only known recorded attempt to define its source. Corsi's study of ancient stone was to influence scholars for many decades to come.

Scala Sancta

Since the eighteenth century, the 28 marble steps have been encased in wood which has been replaced three times due to wear from pilgrims ascending on their knees. There is the easier option to walk up a flight of stairs to the right and observe the kneeling pilgrims from the top.

But whether these are the actual steps or not, what is the meaning of going up the staircase on one’s knees?

In medieval papal bulls, various Popes had granted different indulgences to those who ascended the stairs after confession and holy communion while reciting certain prayers. Indulgences were of great importance during the later medieval period and were said to reduce the amount of time or temporal punishment a person or whatever person they designated in their place would receive in purgatory. These could be paid for or could be earned through a particular action that the Pope had granted. There is still a plenary indulgence attached to ascending the staircase according to certain conditions on one’s knees.

It was with this in mind, that a young priest named Martin Luther made the arduous climb in 1510, while the Scala Sancta was still located in the Lateran palace. His motive was to redeem his grandfather’s soul from purgatory. However, he wrote later that as he looked back down the staircase, he could not suppress the thought, “Who knows whether this is true?”

Charles Dickens was another famous figure who visited the Scala Sancta in 1845. He 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”.

My personal feeling was that the individual motive was what made the journey up the stairs worthwhile. If it was done for the purpose of ‘getting something for oneself’ then I felt Charles Dickens’ observation was painfully accurate. If, however, it was done in some way to draw closer to the mystery of the Passion and to contemplate Christ’s love for us, then I felt it was not such a ‘ridiculous’ act but an act of love and it is only one’s own heart that can say. It was with these thoughts and feelings that I undertook my own personal contemplation in place of following the instructions for the indulgence.

I made my way towards the first, yet at the same time, top step of the Scala Sancta knowing that the ascent would be particularly difficult owing to my bare knees. I remembered how it had hurt when wearing jeans but put this to one side, assuming it was going to hurt in any case unless I wore knee pads (which some people do).

I made the first knee step and felt some kind of stoic nobility in even attempting this, knowing the pain to come. I put this to one side and tried to focus on the suffering of Christ… instead of myself. The first step had a hole cut into it and was covered in glass. On closer inspection, in a quite ungainly position, I could see blackness with some hint of marble. There are four of these peepholes on the steps and are said to show traces of the blood of Christ although it is only the top hole that has the slightest hint of a once orange color. Pilgrims kiss the glass as they ascend.

My intention of walking up the stairs on my knees was to contemplate the Passion of Christ and honour him in this; to imagine him there before me beyond time. These noble aspirations gave way to pain and the pain came quickly. I had barely reached the middle of the staircase when my knees felt like the bare bones were hitting the hard wood case that covered the marble steps. There was no way back down, the only way was up…. so I resigned myself to the pain and tried to console myself with how inconsequential it was compared to what Jesus suffered. My pain tolerance was however not very high. It became more and more difficult to focus until my focus had become to reach that top step and release myself from this bondage. Every step that my knees thudded against, hurt more and more. I tried to support my weight by holding onto the next step to ease the pressure on my knees,  but nothing worked. Finally, with great relief, I reached the topmost step, quickly kissed the glass, and lifted myself up to freedom. My knees were red raw and I swore I’d never do that again… unless I had kneepads on, of course.

I asked myself afterwards, if the pain felt should be part of the contemplation. Had I been weak to not be able to manage it better? As with everything, I believe it depends on the individual. Some people can use the pain to become closer to Christ. Some would be better off without the pain (kneepad option) so that their focus can be purely mental on the Passion of Our Lord. Each method has value. The main thing is the motivation of our act. Are we doing something for God to get something for ourselves or are we doing it out of love for Jesus. Only the heart knows.

Pic of the Scala Sancta by Dguendel via Wikimedia Commons


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