The Holy Stairs

There is no pilgrim who has come to Rome without desiring to visit the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs. It is one of the most important and renowned sanctuaries in the Roman Catholic Church. Situated near the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the Sanctuary houses the Sancta Sanctorum, recognized as the first private Papal chapel.
The sanctuary gets its name from the 28 marble steps of the Holy Stairs.
According to an ancient Christian tradition, Saint Helena (†335), the mother of Constantine, had the stairs transported from Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem to Rome. It is believed that Jesus climbed these stairs several times the day he was sentenced to death, thus, they are known as the “Scala Pilati” or “Scala Sancta” (the Holy Stairs or Pilate’s Stairs). The first written testimonies to this renowned memory of the Passion are found in a passage from the Liber Pontificalis dating from the time of Sergius II (844-847) and in a Papal Bull issued by Pope Pascal II (1099-1119).
It is also known that the stairs were originally placed in the complex of the Lateran Palaces (Patriarchium), the ancient seat of the Papacy. Under the supervision of Sixtus V in 1589, the stairs were placed in front of the Sancta Sanctorum, creating the core of the Sanctuary that can be seen today. The Sanctuary was restored by Pius IX (1846-78) and an adjoining convent was built and entrusted to the Passionist Fathers on February 24, 1853.
Following the example of many saints and illustrious and devoted men and women before him, Pope Pius IX climbed the stairs many times throughout his lifetime, until the eve of the capture of Rome and his voluntary reclusion in the Vatican in 1870. The Sanctuary, as part of the Holy See, according to the 1929 Lateran pact between Mussolini and the Roman Catholic Church, has the all the rights of extraterritoriality.

After climbing the last step of the Holy Stairs, the pilgrim finds himself in front of the iron grating which protects the Sancta Sanctorum. According to medieval historians, this was “the most venerated sanctuary in Rome” and was, until the Renaissance, the private oratory of the Popes. Today it remains a testament to the splendour of the ancient Patriarchium and to a thousand years of papal history. The founder of the chapel remains unknown; however it was originally dedicated to St. Lawrence, and in the IX century it was called the Sancta Sanctorum, due to the numerous important relics housed within. The most ancient and venerated object in the Sancta Sanctorum is the image of the Holy Saviour. Kept above the altar, it is referred to as the “Acheropita” (not made by human hands). Due to its importance, the Chapel is referred called by the name of this image in several documents. Painted on a wooden panel, the image of the Saviour is represented sitting on a throne, blessing with his right hand and holding the scroll of the Gospel in his left hand. The origins of the image remain unknown.

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