Legend has it that Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, discovered the Holy Stairs — steps climbed by Christ on his way to judgment by Pontius Pilate — while traveling to the Holy Land. She also brought back the True Cross.
She brought the relics back to Rome in the 4th Century. They were eventually installed in a building not far from the Archbasilica of Saint John in Laterano. In Latin, these are the Scala Sancta; in Italian, they are the Scala Santa, meaning Holy Stairs.
The Holy Stairs consist of 28 white marble steps. They are not meant to be walked on, but must be climbed on one’s knees out of devotion. For the last 300 or so years, they have been covered by wooden planks for the sake of protection as the thousands and thousands of knees of the devoted climbers have worn down the marble into undulating waves.
Right now, though, the stairs — which have recently gone through conservation efforts — are bare. The wooden planks have not been re-installed yet. So, right now*, you can touch or climb the actual, ancient marble steps.
Though I am not religious, it was still deeply moving to kneel on the stairs and touch them for a moment. But, I chose not to climb them on my not-so-young knees. For those like me, there are “regular” staircases on either side. Although they aren’t holy, they are still pretty breathtaking.
The many stairs all lead to the medieval Chapel of San Lorenzo (San Lorenzo in Palatio ad Sancta Sanctorum), which was once the personal chapel of the popes. It is also known as the Sancta Sanctorum, as the chapel holds many holy relics (the bones of 13 saints are said to be stored beneath the altar).
First, however, you pass through the Oratorio di San Silvestro in Palatio, a much younger (well, Renaissance era) chapel, with a magnificent ceiling and stained glass.
Off to one side, the ancient chapel of the popes lies behind an ancient door with enormous locks.
There is a famous icon of Christ here. Legend is that this image was begun by Luke the Evangelist and finished by angels. The room is filled with beautiful frescoes and mosaics, and it is truly stunning.
It may be another 300 years before you can touch the Scala Santa again. The Holy Stairs are free, but there is a small admission charge for the beautiful chapel, which is well worth it. So, go now!
*The stairs are scheduled to be open (without the wooden coverings) through June 9, 2019, per the official website: http://www.scala-santa.com/en/homepage/ I will update this post if new information comes available.
UPDATE: The Stairs will be open through the end of June: http://www.scala-santa.com/en/homepage/