The Scala Sancta or Holy Stairs (Italian: Scala Santa) is a Christian monument in Rome, Italy. 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 San Giovanni Laterano.
According to tradition, the staircases were part of the praetorium of Pilate in Jerusalem, hence were sanctified by the footsteps of Jesus Christ during his Passion. They are located next to a church which was built on ground brought from Mount Calvary, and now lead to what was the private chapel of the Lateran palace, known as the chapel of St. Lawrence or Sancta Sanctorum.
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 recently been the object of dissertations by Grisar and Lauer.
In its new site, the Scala Sancta is encased in protective 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.