La Scala Santa


The Holy Stairs are going to be uncovered for the public to climb.

Let me tell you: THIS IS EPIC.

Mind you, it’s just for a short time! At least forty days is the official word. (For more information, check out this news article! Holy Stairs in Vatican to be uncovered for public to climb.)

Which begs the question… what are the Holy Stairs, and why is this such a huge deal that they are being opened to the public to climb?

To answer this, I would like to turn to a painter, James Tissot.

Now! I’ve talked about this before, but James Tissot has an interesting story behind him. To put it shortly: after he had a profound vision during holy mass, he left his comfortable Parisian life, where he worked as an artist drawing the latest Paris fashion, and went to the Holy Land, where he stayed there for ten years. During that time, he painted and sketched and painted some more and basically immersed himself into the Gospel, trying his best to accurately portray the Gospel through art. With his art pieces, he wrote down his extensive notes, explaining the details of his artistic decisions and why he chose to depict some of the things the way he did using the Gospel, the Talmud, Church traditions, and a variety of other biblical sources to help him. Then, ten years later, he returned to his home, where he published a book, his masterwork, The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The book, which is currently out of print (alas!), combines his art with scripture and his extensive notes.

And let me tell you: it’s brilliant.

The notes are meticulously researched and no detail is too small for him to explain. Currently, I am transcribing and editing his notes (so, if I have seemed absent as of late of this website, I can assure you that this is what I’ve been doing in the meantime) and hope to release them all to you soon, after I clean them a bit! (They are a bit of a mess right now, I’m afraid… there’s a reason why this book is out of print: it’s really hard to extract the text cleanly.)

Still… I am currently at the part about the Passion, and he actually wrote about La Scala Santa, or the Holy Stair.

So! Let me set the scene a bit, since there is quite a lot of things that happen before this scene…

Pontius Pilate, in his last attempt to save Jesus’ life, has just shown the humiliated Jesus, who has been scourged and now wears the crown of thorn, to the crowd. “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate shouts to the crowd. To which the crowd responds, “Crucify him!” Not willing to fight any longer on behalf of Jesus, Pilate has just washed his hands. In a couple of minutes, he will pronounce Jesus’s death sentence. But for now, Jesus is led back into holding until Pilate can officially make the pronounce the sentence, after fulfilling the necessary bureaucratic steps.

Here on the steps, the soldiers push Jesus to the next place He has to be before His death sentence is pronounced. But Jesus, already weak from His scourging and other beatings that He has received, falls on the steps and rolls down them.

So, with no further ado… his art, and then his notes about the Santa Scala, or Holy Stair!

La Scala Santa, by James Tissot, c. 1886-94. Brooklyn Museum, New York, New York, United States. Via
La Scala Santa, by James Tissot, c. 1886-94. Brooklyn Museum, New York, New York, United States.

The flight of steps to which the name of La Scala Santa or the Holy Stair has been given is still to be seen at Rome, to which city it was removed by Saint Helena. It is of white marble veined with grey, and it led up to the Roman Praetorium, so that nothing which has been preserved to us connected with the Passion of Our Lord is more worthy of the veneration of the pilgrim than are these steps,which were actually trodden by His sacred feet. Even the Via Dolorosa is less exactly what it was at the time when Christ passed along it and His blood stained the ground; for, of course, the level of the soil has been raised and modified, whereas in the sanctuaries enshrining the more enduring relics, marble facings keep worshippers to some extent at a distance. Pilgrims to the Scala Santa touch the very steps down which, according to tradition Jesus, Whose feet slipped at the top, rolled all bruised and bleeding. For this reason the Holy Stair is always climbed on the knees.

James Tissot, The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Vol. 4

Anyway! If you happen to be in Rome during this time, please go! This is one of the most precious relics that we have.

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

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