Scala Sancta in Rome

Show Map

The ' (, ) are, according to the Christian tradition, the steps that led up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, which Jesus Christ stood on during his Passion on his way to trial. The stairs were, reputedly, brought to Rome by St. Helena in the 4th Century. For centuries, the Scala Santa has attracted Christian pilgrims who wished to honor the Passion of Jesus.

It consists of twenty-eight white marble steps, now encased by wooden steps, located in a building which incorporates part of the old Lateran Palace, located opposite the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. They are located next to a church which was built on ground brought from Mount Calvary. The stairs lead to the ' , the personal chapel of the early Popes in the Lateran palace, known as the chapel of St. Lawrence.


Medieval legends claim that the Holy Stairs were brought from Jerusalem to Rome about 326 by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. In the Middle Ages, they were known as Scala Pilati (Stairs of Pilate). From old plans it can be gathered that they led to a corridor of the Lateran Palace, near the Chapel of St. Sylvester, were covered with a special roof. When Sixtus V in 1589 destroyed the then ruined old papal palace to rebuild a new one, he ordered the Holy Stairs be transferred to their present site, before the Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies), which received its name from the many precious relics preserved there, including the celebrated icon of Santissimi Salvatore Acheiropoieton ("not made by human hands") which on certain occasions used to be carried through Rome in procession . These holy treasures, which since Leo X (1513–21) had not been seen by anybody, have been the object of dissertations by Grisar and Lauer.


The Scala Sancta is encased in protective walnut wood boards, and flanked by four other stairs, two on each side, for common use, since the Holy Stairs may only be ascended on the knees, a devotion much in favor with pilgrims and the faithful, especially on Fridays and in Lent.

The decoration of the Scala Santa was one of the major refurbishment exercises of the papacy of Sixtus V, led by Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra and occupying a crew of artists to decorate frescoes including Giovanni Baglione, Giacomo Stella, Giovanni Battista Pozzo, Paris Nogari, Prospero Orsi, Ferraù Fenzoni, Paul Bril, Paulo Guidotti, Giovanni Battista Ricci, Cesaro Torelli, Antonio Vivarini, Andrea Lilio, Cesare & Vicenzo Conti Baldassare Croce, Ventura Salimbeni, and Antonio Scalvati. Numerous preliminary drawings by Nebbia exist for these frescoes, though it is not exactly known with certainty who painted which fresco.

Scala Sancta in the Catholic Church

In the Catholic Church, plenary indulgence can be granted for climbing the stairs on the knees. Pius VII on 2 September 1817 granted those who ascend the stairs in the prescribed manner an indulgence of nine years for every step. Finally Pius X, on 26 February 1908, granted a plenary indulgence to be gained as often as the stairs are devoutly ascended after confession and communion.

Not a few popes are recorded to have performed this pious exercise; Pius IX, who in 1853 entrusted the Passionist Fathers with the care of the sanctuary, ascended the Holy Stairs on 19 September 1870, the eve of the entrance of the Piedmontese into Rome.

Martin Luther climbed these steps on his knees in 1511. As he did so, the Holy Spirit, reminded him of the Bible verse, "The righteous shall live by faith." In other words, it's not by works that a person will get to heaven. This was a turning point in his life, as he placed his faith in God, rather than trying to earn his way to heaven.

Copies of the Scala Sancta around the world

Imitations of the Scala Sancta have been erected in various places, as in Lourdes and in some convents of nuns, and indulgences are attached to them by special concessions.

  • Sacro Monte di Varallo, Piedmont, Italy
  • St Paul’s Church, Campli, Italy : Pope Clement XIV acknowledged Campli in 1772 with the ownership of the Holy Stairs.
  • Veroli, Italy
  • Heilig-Kreuz Kirche, Bad Tölz, Germany
  • Kreuzbergkirche, Bonn, Germany  : Clemens August of Bavaria, ordered to retrofit this church with a "Scala Sancta" according to the plans of the Baroque architect Balthasar Neumann. It was built from 1745 to 1751.
  • Basilica of Sainte Anne d'Auray, France
  • Františkánsky kostol Nepoškvrneného Počatia Panny Márie, Malacky, Slovakia
  • St. Patrick - St. Stanislaus Kostka Pittsburgh, PA, United States


  • The Scala Santa and treasures play an important role in the novel The Discovery of Heaven by the Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch.



External links