The Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs

One of the most important holy sites in Christianity, the Holy Stairs, or Scala Santa, are said to be the same steps in Jerusalem mounted by Christ before he was judged by Pontius Pilate. They were brought to Rome in 326 AD by St.Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine and placed near their current site on land donated to the Early Church by the Emperor. In 1277, when the Lateran was still the papal residence, the Sancta Sanctorum, or “Holiest of Holy Places” was constructed as the private chapel for the popes.

The chapel is not alone in the complex of the Holy Stairs. To its one side is the Chapel of St. Lawrence, dedicated to the martyr who believed that the suffering, blind, and crippled were treasures of the Church. On the other side resides the chapel of St. Sylvester, the pope to whom Constantine dedicated the Lateran area during his empire. These chapels are places filled with countless prayers,innumerable relics, and saintly frescoes.

Millions of pilgrims have since paid homage to this devotional site, and continue to do so today. In a disposition of sincere humility, one must ascend the stairs on their knees. Any visitor who witnesses the devotion with which the faithful ascend the Holy Stairs, remains in awe of the prayerful dedication to the Passion of Christ.

Building a properly enclosed structure around the Scala Santa was one of the major projects inaugurated by Pope Sixtus V in 1590 and eventually completed by architect Domenico Fontana. The Holy Pontiff also hired a team of forty artists to decorate the interior vaults and stairwells. Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra headed the multivariate group. Today, the stairs contain more than 1700 square meters of frescoes telling the story of the Old and New Testaments. Various saints and doctors of the church make their debut next to superb landscapes by Flemish master, Paul Brill.

These cycles were executed in a style that came to be known as the Late Mannerism movement, which was to influence the development of figurative painting in Rome for years to come.

The Passionist Fathers became custodians of this extra-territorial domain of the Holy See and took up plans to completely restore its chapels and frescoed walls that had suffered significant deterioration over the centuries.

After a major collaboration with the Getty Foundation in 2000 to restore the Chapel of Saint Sylvester, a campaign to “Save the Stairs” began in 2012, and responsibility for restoration was transferred completely into the hands of the Vatican Museums. Donations from the Patrons of the Arts raised partial funding for the project enabling 3/5 of the five phase enterprise to be restored. The blackened walls almost miraculously dissipated as the work of the nine-membered team elicited forth the dazzling colors of the 16th century frescoes.

This is a high-profile endeavor, especially in light of the originality and long history of the Sanctuary. The restorative genius of the Vatican team sponsored by the Patrons of the Arts has and will continue to enhance this space of spiritual fulfillment for its two million visitors each year.

The first three phases of restoration are completed. This includes the Chapel of San Sylvester, the Chapel of San Lorenzo, and the two side stairwells to both the right and the left of the Scala Santa. The vaulting of these two lateral stairwells, one decorated with scenes from the Old Testament and the outside one with the emblem of Pope Sixtus V, are now terminated together with the dome and the walls depicting two exceptional scenes of the Sacrifice of Isaac and the Creation of Eve at the top of the stairs.


Work will continue under the supervision of Maestro Paolo Violini until until the frescoes and walls are restored. The 9-member conservation team will be working with the utmost concentration to complete the last two phases of restoration. The main staircase of the Holy Stairs and the atrium will be finished contemporarily using the same care and experience gained during the completed previous phases. The result is a dramatic recuperation of the brilliant chromatics alongside the integrity of the plasterwork and decorative elements in these staircases. Removing that which was retouched in prior restorative attempts as well as innovative strategies to ensure future restorative maintenance will be part of the ongoing strategy. These efforts will allow a new reading of the original figurative scenes which were previously almost illegible. The entire sanctuary has begun to regain its original luminosity thanks to the vibrant colors of the various biblical scenes elicited forth from the concentrated minds and dexterous fingers of the restoration team.



  • COST FOR THE FOURTH PHASE: Holy Stairs, January ’18 – December ’18 = € 494.270,00

  • COST FOR THE FIFTH PHASE: Atrium, January ’19 – December ’19 = € 299.300,00