The Scala Sancta is a flight of twenty-eight marble steps which purportedly led up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. The faithful believe these are the very steps Christ climbed when he appeared before Pilate, who was the prefect in the Roman province of Judaea.
According to legend, the Scala Sancta (Sacred Staircase) were brought to Rome, circa 326, by St Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, and once formed part of the old Lateran Palace.
In 1589 Sixtus V (r. 1585-90) had the stairs reconstructed in their present position, leading up to the Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies), the personal chapel of the early popes.
The faithful ascend the Scala Sancta on their knees. In the early part of the 18th century the steps were encased in wood to protect the marble.
The building which houses the steps is the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs (Pontificio Santuario della Scala Santa).
The Sancta Sanctorum (Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Palatio ad Sancta Sanctorum) was rebuilt in 1278 for Pope Nicholas III (r. 1277-80). In addition to frescoes and mosaics, it houses an ancient painting (possibly 5th century) on wood of Christ, known as the Uronica, which is said to have been begun by Saint Luke and finished by an angel. Such an image is known as an Acheiropoieton ('made without hands').
The Sancta Sanctorum, which was originally dedicated to Saint Lawrence, served as the pope's private chapel until the Renaissance.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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