Visiting The Holy Stairs, The Scala Sancta, In Rome

Thinking of visiting the Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs in Rome? Here’s my complete guide to the Holy Stairs, with tips for visiting.

The Scala Sancta is located at the front of the Church of St. Lawrence in Palatio and is one of the world’s most important pilgrimage sites.

Many people come to Rome to walk in the footsteps of legendary people from history, like walking down the Via Sacra to commune with Julius Caesar. But at this site, Christian pilgrims come to climb a staircase.

What’s so special about it?

diode to the Holy Stairs, Scala Sancta
the Holy Stairs, Scala Sancta

Roman Catholic tradition holds that these are the 28 white marble stairs that Jesus climbed on his way to face trial before Pontius Pilate. They’re reputed to be stained with drops of Jesus’ blood.

History Of The Holy Stairs

The story behind the Holy Stairs is a compelling one and it starts with Emperor Constantine.

Constantine came to power in 306 A.D. and was an ambitious and energetic ruler. But he didn’t want to share power with his western cohort, Maxentius. He wanted to rule all of Rome and its far flung empire.

In 312, their two armies were ready to do battle. On the night before the fateful day, Constantine had a vision, which has been depicted by artists in the Vatican Museums and in the Piero della Francesca fresco cycle of The Legend of the True Cross.

Raphael, Vision of the Cross, 1520-24 -- in the Raphael Rooms of the Vatican Museums
Raphael and workshop, Vision of the Cross, 1520-24 — in the Raphael Rooms of the Vatican Museums

Constantine dreamed that he saw a cross in the sky and that God told him to paint Christ’s name on his soldiers’ shields. He complied.

READ: History of the Roman Emperors

The next day, Constantine routed Maxentius in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, becoming sole emperor of both the east and west empire.

To Constantine, the Christian god was more powerful than the entire pantheon of pagan gods that Rome worshipped.

Constantine issued the edict of Milan, granting tolerance to Christians. Christianity was on its way to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire.

But even Constantine knew that Rome wasn’t the center of the empire anymore. After some scouting, he selected a new city to be the seat of Rome, the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. He tried to call it “New Rome, but that name didn’t stick.

Paolo Veronese, The Vision of St. Helena, mid 16th century
Paolo Veronese, The Vision of St. Helena, mid 16th century

Constantine also believed he needed to demonstrate a tangible connection to God. He wanted to demonstrate his divine favor and thereby ensure his status above other mortal men.

He turned to the person he most trusted, his mother Helena. She was dispatched to Jerusalem with an imperial retinue.

Her mission? To collect relics from the life and times of Jesus and bring them home.

Upon arriving, the 80 year old matriarch found a city still reeling from Titus’ attack in 70 A.D. But she got going to rectify the situation.

Cima da Conegliano, Saint Helena, c. 1459 - 1517 or 1518 -- in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
Cima da Conegliano, Saint Helena, c. 1459-1517 or 1518 — in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

She commissioned the building of churches. She claimed to discover pieces of the true cross and thorns from the crown of thorns.

The most fascinating relic she uncovered was the staircase leading to the office of Pontius Pilate. He was the Roman governor who adjudicated the trial of Jesus.

It was on this staircase that Jesus walked up to receive his fateful judgment. Helena believed that, by walking on the stairs, people would feel like they were in direct contact with Jesus.

Helena crated up the staircase and brought it to Rome with her other treasures. Upon arriving there, she collapsed and died, perhaps from her exhausting task.

bust from a statue of Constantine in the Capitoline Museums
bust from a statue of Constantine in the Capitoline Museums

The Holy Stairs were initially installed in the papal palace. In the late 1580s, Pope Sixtus V opened the steps to the public. Pilgrims came in droves.

Over time, the palace fell into disrepair. When parts of it were knocked down for renovation, the Holy Stairs were re-discovered. In 1723, Pope Innocent XIII relocated them to the entrance of St. Lawrence in Palatio.

The staircase was encased in wood for protection because the steps could no longer tolerate the wear and tear from pilgrims’ visits. But there are slots in the wood where you can see the actual marble stairs.

The stairs reopened to the public in 2019 after a year long restoration. For 60 days, pilgrims could climb the actual stairs without any protective covering.

fresco on the Holy Stairs
fresco on the Holy Stairs

The Mannerist frescos on the walls and ceiling were also restored. Apart from removing dust and grime, restorers even found ancient graffiti on them.

Did Jesus Really Climb The Holy Stairs?

It’s leap of faith based on legend to climb the Holy Stairs. But are they the real thing, the same staircase that was allegedly in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago?

No one knows for sure. There has been no scientific study.

Some archaeologists and historians don’t believe the stairs are from Pontius Pilate’s palace. Marble wasn’t a material commonly found in Jerusalem. It wasn’t a material used in construction before the second century.

The palace may not even have been located where legend holds the event took place. It’s possible the stairs were an attempt at a replica.

the restored Holy Stairs
the restored Holy Stairs

Guide To Visiting The Holy Stairs

Constantine and his mother had a profound impact on the western world. Now, any visitor to Rome can experience the legacy they left behind and get up close and personal with one of the most influential figures in history, Jesus.

The Holy Stairs are near the Basilica of St. John Lateran. It’s the seat of the Bishop of Rome, commonly called the pope.

Anyone can visit the site, of any faith or creed. You just have to respect tradition.

At the base of the Holy Stairs, there are two imposing statues linked to Christ’s Passion. One is an image of Jesus with Pontius Pilate and the other depicts the Kiss of Judas. 

people climbing the famous "Scala Santa" or Holy Stairs
the famous “Scala Santa” or Holy Stairs

The Holy Stairs draw half a million visitors a year. Pilgrims climb the 28 steps on their knees.

It’s considered an act of devotion and penance, in which they meditate on the passion of Christ. The climb is performed with silence and focus, as climbers’ knees find the well worn grooves.

Many people will also stop and kiss points on the steps where three medieval crosses mark drops of Christ’s blood. I didn’t do the climb myself (I’m not religious). But it was a moving experience to watch witnesses affirm their faith.

For those like me, the Holy Stairs are flanked by ordinary staircases that climb to the top of the landing.

Kiss of Judas statue at the base of the Holy Stairs
Kiss of Judas statue at the base of the Holy Stairs

The Holy Stairs are enveloped in frescoes from the late 16th century. They tell stories from the old and new testaments and depict various saints. There are some superb landscapes by Flemish master Paul Bril.

After climbing the staircase, you can enter the Sancta Sanctorum (the “Holy of Holies”). It’s a room that was once the Pope’s private chapel. The last pope to visit the Sancta Sanctorum was Pius IX.

The chapel holds venerated relics from saints and martyrs from the first centuries of Christianity, as well as the Acheiropoieta.

The latter is a jewel-encrusted icon with an image of Jesus. The word means “made without hands.”

people climbing the Holy Stairs

It’s thought to have come into existence miraculously. Legend holds that it was begun by Saint Luke the Evangelist, but finished by an angel.

Tips For Visiting The Holy Stairs

Address: Piazza di S. Giovani in Laterano 14

How To Get To The Holy Stairs:

The Holy Stairs are located in the part of Rome called the Lantern. It’s on the southeast side of the city. It’s a 10 minute walk from the San Giovani Metro Station (Line A) or a 20 minute walk from the Colosseum.

Hours:

Open daily from 6:30 am to 6:30 pm. On Sunday, the opening time is 7:00 am. In the summer, closing time is 7:00 pm. It’s occasionally closed for periods in mid-day.

Acheiropoieta icon in the Sancta Sanctorum
Acheiropoieta icon in the Sancta Sanctorum

Tickets:

The holy stairs are free to visit, no reservation needed. But the entrance to the Sancta Sanctorum must be booked ahead.

Guided Tours:

You can book a 2 hour guided tour to see both the Basilica of St. John Lateran and the Holy Stairs. This 3 hour guided tour takes you to four churches in Rome and the Holy Stairs.

Website

Basilica of St. John Lateran

Before or after you visit the Holy Stairs, you should also visit the Basilica of St. John Lateran to get the whole Constantine experience. It’s right across the street.

The Lateran is considered the mother church of the Catholic faith. It’s one of the four major basilicas under the jurisdiction of the pope.

the Borromini-designed nave of the basilica
the Borromini-designed nave of the basilica

Until 1870, all the popes were crowned here. It houses the tombs of six popes.

The Lateran was the first church established by the Emperor Constantine. Legend holds that Constantine himself dug the foundation with his bare hands.

The rather bombastic facade was designed by Alessandro Galilei. It’s made entirely of travertine. 

On the top are 15 enormous statues of Jesus, saints, and the doctors of the church, created by the best sculptors of the era. In the vestibule is a massive statue of Constantine.

The nave was once a “forest of columns.” Fearing the roof would collapse, Borromini created piers. In each pier is a niche, holding sculptures of the apostles.

cloisters of the basilica
cloisters of the basilica

The floor is beautiful too. It’s from the 15th century, made of porphyry, serpentine, and granite. There’s also a golden apse mosaic, by Jacobi Torriti, from the 13th century.

The high altar were once used by Saint Peter himself. The baldachin has a 14th century gold canopy with the busts of Paul and Peter. It’s said that the heads of the apostles were actually once with it.

It’s worth it to pay a bit extra to see the 13th century cloister, created by the Cosmati Vassalletti brothers. The cloister has unique twisting double columns.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to visiting the Holy Stairs. You may enjoy these other Rome travel guides and resources:

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