Light at the Top of the Stairs: One of the Most Famous Places of Worship in the World is Restored!

On Thursday, June 11, 2015 a group of restorers, patrons, and many other interested art and history lovers came together to celebrate the inauguration of the recently restored Chapel of St. Lorenzo, newly conserved thanks to support from the UK Patrons of the Vatican Museums. This is the second phase for the complete restoration of the Holy Stairs (1588-90) which began with the Getty Foundation in 2001. The Getty funded the preliminary study for the Sanctuary which was then followed by the first phase of restoration at the Chapel of St. Silvestro.  The project now continues thanks to funding from our UK Patrons of the Art. The glorious results of current restorations in the St. Lorenzo Chapel have redefined the spiritual experience of visiting this holy site.

It took 9 restorers 19 months of meticulous work to bring about the transformation in the St. Lorenzo Chapel and in the process they discovered details and images that had been obscured for hundreds of years. Cleaning unearthed important physical aspects like the Paul Bril landscapes and the splendid original decorations for St. Lorenzo’s large portrait while reviving the splendid colors originally from the time of Sixtus V, who commissioned the Sanctuary.

andscape fresco by the Flemish artist Paul Bril, whose possible self-portrait is portrayed in the lunette above the entrance to the Sancta Sanctorum at the Holy Stairs.

Landscape fresco by the Flemish artist, Paul Bril, whose possible self-portrait is portrayed in the lunette above the entrance to the Sancta Sanctorum at the Holy Stairs.

The Holy Stairs, brought to Rome from Jerusalem in 326 A.D. by Constantine’s mother, St. Helen, are said to be the same stairs upon which Jesus stood to be sentenced by Pontius Pilate. Pilgrims to this sacred spot traditionally mount the stairs (which are protected by wooden boards) on their knees in a physical act of penitence. At the culmination of this intense spiritual experience is the Sancta Sanctorum (Holiest of Holies). This was the first private chapel of the Popes (1277), itself a manifestation of faith and history for the Church.

On Thursday, Vatican Museums Deputy Director Arnold Nesselrath, Fathers Ottaviano D’Egidio and Francesco Guerra of the Passionists Congregation (who are responsible for the site) and our director Fr. Mark led a presentation to discuss the importance of this project and thank those who were instrumental in its completion. Details of the frescos, which were executed by some 30 painters headed by Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra, were revealed and the methods of restoration outlined by master Vatican restorer Paolo Violini in a dynamic powerpoint presentation.

Chiara Munzi uses special Japanese paper as she restores a fresco by Flemish master Paul Bril in the San Lorenzo Chapel adjacent to the Holy Stairs on Feb. 28 in Rome. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Chiara Munzi uses special Japanese paper as she restores a fresco by Flemish master Paul Bril in the San Lorenzo Chapel adjacent to the Holy Stairs on Feb. 28 in Rome. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Restoration often includes revelatory moments that strengthen the bond between faith and art – the physical and the spiritual. In an article for the National Catholic Reporter in 2013, Fr. Mark remarked on the importance of conserving the Holy Stairs, “not just for its material beauty, but also for its power to help transform people’s lives. If it can bring solace to someone who’s suffering, if it can convince someone mired in a challenge, a difficulty, a weakness, that they can’t find the moral courage to overcome, and have a spiritual experience before the passion of Christ, for example,…well, there’s infinite value there.”

“The financial investment,” Fr. Mark went on to say, “the returns go beyond anything anyone could ever imagine and that’s what’s powerful, that’s what’s beautiful and that’s why the church cares about its art.”

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The Chapel of San Lorenzo is a place that clearly speaks to this idea. A sacred destination that has the power to affect faith and reinforce a commitment in Christ and in life’s beauty. This kind of work is what makes the patrons so crucial and gives concrete meaning to our larger mission.

Again, we want to thank the patrons that made this possible as well as all our patrons who work toward the restorations of sacred art in the Vatican.

Chapel of St. Lorenzo after restoration.

Chapel of St. Lorenzo after restoration.

Other articles on this event:

Arte Magazine: http://www.artemagazine.it/arte-classica-e-moderna/90726/roma-torna-a-splendere-la-cappella-di-san-lorenzo/

The National Catholic Reporter:http://ncronline.org/news/art-media/stairway-heaven-vatican-backs-effort-restore-holy-stairs-shrine