For nearly 300 years, Rome's Scala Santa, or Holy Stairs, have been encased in planks of walnut wood, preventing faithful Catholics from touching the surface of the 28 marble steps some believe Jesus ascended before receiving his death sentence from Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. But Reuters reports that through June 9, pilgrims have the rare opportunity to ascend the bare marble steps on their knees while the protective wood coverings are restored.
Tradition says that the steps, housed in the Santuario della Scala Santa e Sancta Sanctorum, once part of the Lateran Palaces in Rome, were part of Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem. As described in a press release, the story goes that St. Helena, the mother of Constantine I, the first Christian emperor of Rome, had the stairs transported to Rome in 326 A.D. Over the years, the sanctuary was built to house them.
The marble steps soon became a pilgrimage site, with worshippers ascending the steps on their knees, praying as they went. Four spots where it was believed Jesus’s blood spattered the steps were covered with decorative crosses and a grate. In 1723, Pope Innocent XIII, worried that that all the traffic was wearing away the marble, had the steps covered in walnut. Since then, pious visitors have had the opportunity to ascend the wood-encased steps to show their devotion and receive a plenary indulgence.
Hannah Bockhaus at the Catholic News Agency reports that in January 2018, the steps were officially cordoned off from all visitors so restorers could also clean the large 16th-century frescoes lining the stairway as part of a larger restoration of the chapel.
In total, restoration specialists from the Vatican Museum cleaned the grime off 18,000 square feet of frescoes along the stairs and in the sanctuary’s chapels reports Phoebe Natanson at ABC News. Graffiti found on the frescoes speak to centuries of believers who came to the steps to worship, including one message from an enslaved laborer who expressed their gratitude for being freed from a Turkish master.
When restorers removed the coverings on the steps, the first time they were exposed since a cleaning in the 1950s, they found thousands of objects including coins, photos, handwritten prayers and rosaries under the wood. The damage caused by thousands of pilgrims seeking indulgences over the centuries was also evident. “We have seen these steps carved out in a totally unusual way,” Francesco Guerra, rector of the Scala Santa Sanctuary tells Reuters. “The feet of pilgrims had literally excavated them.”
Pilgrims are now allowed to ascend the bare steps on their knees until Pentecost on June 9, which is the time some Christians believe the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples of Jesus. After that, the walnut protectors will be re-installed and the restoration of the rest of the chapel will continue apace.
So are the steps the genuine article? Owen Jarus at LiveScience reports that it’s doubtful. “From a scientific standpoint, I put the likelihood that these steps came from Pilate's palace in Jerusalem at about zero,” Jodi Magness, archaeologist and professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says.
For one thing, marble was not a common building material in the Roman province of Judea, even for a governor’s palace. Jarus also points out that the palace was originally built by King Herod, who would not have used marble either.
The Romans also razed many buildings in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., including the Second Temple and the palace occupied by the Roman governor, meaning it’s unlikely Helena could have located the steps 250 years later. That, however, will probably not keep believers from flocking to the Scala Santa over the next two months.