Rome: Sancta Sanctorum and Scala Santa

Pope Nicholas III with Saints Peter and Paul.

I cannot deny that I feel exceptionally privileged. In January of this year I had the former private chapel of the Pope all to myself. This chapel is one of the very few remnants of the old Lateran palace, which was demolished and replaced at the end of the sixteenth century. Older travel guides will usually report that the chapel is inaccessible to the public. Fortunately this is no longer correct, although those wanting to visit the chapel were for a long time required to join a guided tour. Presuming that this rule was still in force, I bought my ticket on 7 January 2022, only to be told that I was allowed to enter the chapel unattended. This was quite special of course, but what made it even more special was the fact that there were no other visitors. Lastly, taking photos was allowed, which was the true cherry on the cake. This allowed me to photograph all the beautifully restored thirteenth-century frescoes in the chapel and include a couple of pictures in this post. The post will also address the so-called Holy Stairs or Scala Santa.

Sancta Sanctorum (papal chapel)

The papal chapel was dedicated to Saint Lawrence. It was part of the medieval Lateran palace, that was constructed in the eighth century under the Popes Zacharias (741-752) and Adrianus I (772-795). The old palace complex was much larger than the current Lateran palace. Elements of the original complex were, apart from the papal chapel, a large meeting hall (aula concilii) where five Lateran Councils were held, a Loggia of Benedictions built by Pope Bonifatius VIII (1294-1303), the Holy Stairs or Scala Santa (see below) and a large dining hall constructed during the pontificate of Pope Leo III (795-816). This article contains several images that give an idea of what the complex must have looked like.

From left to right: Scala Santa, San Lorenzo in Palatio with the Sancta Sanctorum behind it, Triclinium Leoninum.

Interior of the former papal chapel.

We do not know when exactly the papal chapel was built, but it is first mentioned in the eighth century. Pope Leo III collected a large number of relics and had these enshrined in the chapel. Many of these – or rather, the relic holders – are reportedly currently in the Vatican Museums. According to one of my sources there were quite a few curious objects among the relics, such as pieces of the True Cross, mother’s milk from the Virgin Mary, footwear worn by Jesus Christ, a piece of table and leftovers from the Last Supper, a piece of the Holy Lance, a thorn from the crown of thorns and fish bones from the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Last but not least, a piece of Jesus’ foreskin, the praeputium Domini, was said to have been kept in the chapel. Jesus was, after all, a Jew, who was circumcised eight days after birth in accordance with Mosaic law (Luke 2:21). In 1527, during the Sacco di Roma, the piece of skin was reportedly stolen and somehow ended up in the town of Calcata in Lazio. There it was stolen again in 1983. The whole story is extremely dubious, and there is at least one other location that claims to possess the foreskin.

However this all may be, it was the presence of so many relics that gave the chapel the name Sancta Sanctorum. In 1277 Rome was struck by a heavy earthquake, which severely damaged the Lateran palace and the papal chapel. Pope Nicholas III (1277-1280) had the chapel restored and then reconsecrated in 1279. The architect involved was probably a scion of the Roman family of the Cosmati. This we may conclude from an inscription in Latin with the text “magister Cosmatus fecit hoc opus”. Pope Nicholas also hired a team of talented painters to decorate the walls and vault of the chapel with splendid frescoes. In 1586 Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) instructed his architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) to demolish the old Lateran palace and rebuild it on a much more modest scale. The new palace was completed in 1589. All that was left of the old building were the papal chapel and an apse of Pope Leo III’s dining hall, while the Holy Stairs were re-laid. The apse of the dining hall – the so-called Triclinium Leoninum – was demolished in 1731 and then rebuilt elsewhere.

Cosmatesque floor in the chapel.

Apostles (below) and the martyrdoms of Saints Peter and Paul (above).

A recent renovation programme has restored the papal chapel to its full glory. The chapel has a beautiful and original Cosmatesque floor and walls that have been decorated with blocks of marble from Antiquity. The frescoes on the walls and vault are of truly exceptional quality. We first of all see 26 portraits of saints, five on the east wall and three times seven on the other walls. Although the saints do not have captions, many of them are easily identified. On the east wall we for instance see the Madonna and Child in the centre, flanked by Saints John the Baptist (left) and John the Evangelist (right). Moreover there are portraits of several popes, bishops, apostles and other important religious figures, including Benedictus of Nursia, Franciscus of Assisi and Dominicus.

Christ on his throne.

In each of the four the lunettes, one level above the saints, two religious scenes have been painted. On the east wall we see how a kneeling Pope Nicholas III offers a scale model of the chapel to Jesus Christ (depicted in the other frame inside the lunette). Nicholas is aided by Saints Peter and Paul, with Peter actually helping the pope to hold the scale model (see the first image of this post). The fresco very likely shows us what the exterior of the chapel looked like in 1279. Inside the other frame, Christ sits on his throne, holding a cruciform sceptre in his left hand. He reaches out with his right hand to accept the scale model. Hovering around the throne are two angels.

If we explore the chapel clockwise, we subsequently see the crucifixion of Saint Peter (upside down), the decapitation of Saint Paul, the stoning of Saint Stephen, the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence on the gridiron, the martyrdom of Saint Agnes and lastly one of Saint Nicholas’ good deeds (providing three poor girls with a dowry). Nicholas is of course also the name of the pope who had the chapel rebuilt. Thanks to the restorations, the frescoes have their original fresh colours again, while the details are wonderful. The decapitated Saint Paul for instance wears a blindfold and the naked Saint Lawrence (to whom the chapel was dedicated) lies on his gridiron with the Roman emperor Decius watching. Of course this is not historically correct. While Christians were in fact persecuted during the reign of Decius (249-251), Lawrence was martyred in the year 258 during the reign of the emperor Valerianus (253-260). There is something odd about the fresco featuring Saint Stephen. The colours on the left are very dull and do not match at all with those on the right. Was the part on the left perhaps painted over later (at the end of the sixteenth century) and then not restored to its former glory? That seems to be the most logical explanation. Do not forget to look up in the chapel, as the vault with the symbols of the four evangelists is beautiful as well.

The martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. The emperor Decius is watching.

The martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Note the contrast between the left and right parts of the fresco.

Vault with the symbols of the four evangelists.

Who exactly painted all these frescoes? Unfortunately we do not really know. According to the Scala Santa website painters from the schools of Cavallini, Cimabue and others were involved. One of my travel guides, on the other hand, asserts that the style of the frescoes is reminiscent of Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi. I must say that all of these claims are problematic. Pietro Cavallini (ca. 1259-1330) was probably too young to have contributed to these frescoes, and in 1279 he obviously did not have his own school yet. His earliest known work dates from the 1280s and could be found in the basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura. The school of Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302) seems to be a wild guess as well. In any case, in his sixteenth-century biography of Cimabue, Giorgio Vasari does not mention any works by this painter in Rome. Lastly, a few words about the perceived similarities with Giotto’s frescoes. This Florentine painter was born around 1266, so it is impossible that he was involved in painting the frescoes in the papal chapel. It should be noted that these frescoes are somewhat simpler than the Assisi frescoes, to which I may add that not everyone has accepted Giotto’s authorship of the latter frescoes either.

Saint Nicholas giving a dowry to three poor girls.

Mosaic of Christ the Pantokrator.

Acheiropoieta.

The east wall is not really a back wall. It is supported by two columns, and behind these columns is a confined space with the sanctuary of the chapel. Above the columns we read the Latin text NON EST IN TOTO SANCTIOR ORBE LOCVS, “there is no place in this world more sacred”. The sanctuary has splendid original mosaics in the Byzantine style. The largest mosaic represents Christ the Pantokrator (see above). He is depicted in a tondo supported by four angels. Inside the lunettes we see six smaller portraits of saints. They correspond with the frescoes discussed above, so we see Saints Peter, Paul, Agnes, Lawrence, Stephen and Nicholas.

In the sanctuary a famous icon of Jesus Christ is kept, known as Acheiropoieta, Acheropita or Acheiropoeton. These are all variants of a word that means ‘not made by human hands’. According to tradition, the icon was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist with the help of an angel. Of course this whole story is pious nonsense, but the icon is definitely very old. Although it may date from the fifth century, it is first mentioned in a source in the eighth. The icon represents Christ on his throne, but only the face of the Messiah is visible. That face was repainted on a piece of linen during the pontificate of Pope Alexander III (1159-1181), and the linen was subsequently attached to the wooden original. Pope Innocentius III (1198-1216) had the icon encased in a beautiful cover made of silver, gold and precious stones. The hatches on either side were added in the fifteenth century. They have been embellished with an Annunciation scene and six saints.

Scala Santa

Façade of the Scala Santa.

People who want to reach the Sancta Sanctorum may take one of five stairs leading to the chapel. The central one is the Holy Stairs or Scala Santa. Visitors may only climb it on their knees. According to tradition, the 28 steps came from the praetorium or palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judaea who condemned Jesus to death. The empress Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine the Great (306-337), supposedly obtained the stairs during her visit to the Holy Land in 326-327 and sent the steps to Rome. It is said that during the same visit she recovered the True Cross on which the Messiah had died (see Rome: Santa Croce in Gerusalemme). Unfortunately there is every reason to doubt the two stories. Eusebius of Caesarea, a contemporary of Constantine and Helena, discusses the journey of the empress to the Holy Land and addresses the churches she had built, but never mentions either the Finding of the Cross or the Holy Stairs. The stories clearly came in existence centuries later, and in reality the Scala Santa were installed in the Lateran palace by Pope Sergius II (844-847). The stairs were probably spolia from a Roman building.

When Domenico Fontana demolished the old Lateran palace in 1586, he had to find a new location for the Holy Stairs. He therefore built a loggia close to the papal chapel and constructed a small building with five sets of stairs behind it. The central one became the new Scala Santa. For obvious reasons the workmen were not allowed to touch the steps with their feet, and so according to tradition the step at the bottom was removed first and then installed all the way at the top at the new location. The topmost step, in its turn, ended up at the bottom. In other words, the stairs were reversed. The loggia was originally open, but in 1856 four of its five arches were bricked up by order of Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), who was known to have often climbed the stairs himself. The Latin text on the façade reads SIXTVS V FECIT SANCTIORIO LOCO SCALAM SANCTAM POSVIT, or “Sixtus V made this and placed the Holy Stairs in an even holier place”. During the pontificate of Pope Innocentius XIII (1721-1724) the Holy Stairs were provided with a wooden cover to protect them against wear. The Scala Santa are not the only holy stairs in Rome. The Church of the Frisians (Santi Michele e Magno) has a set too.

Crucifixion – Cesare Nebbia.

The walls on either side of the five stairs have been beautifully decorated with frescoes. These were painted by a team of painters led by Giovanni Guerra (1544-1618) and Cesare Nebbia (ca. 1536-1622). Most of the painters involved were Italians, but the Flemish painter Paul Bril (1554-1626) was also a member of the team. The frescoes surrounding the Holy Stairs are all about Christ’s suffering. Pilgrims climbing the stairs on their knees slowly move towards the three most important frescoes at the top, which represent the Crucifixion (attributed to Nebbia), the Resurrection (attributed to Giacomo Stella and Bril) and the Ascension (again attributed to Nebbia). The stairs to the left of the Holy Stairs are surrounded by stories from Genesis, while the stairs on the right have stories from the book of Exodus.

San Lorenzo in Palatio

After demolishing the old Lateran palace, Domenico Fontana had two more chapels built to the left and right of the papal chapel. The chapel on the right became the church of San Lorenzo in Palatio and the chapel on the left is the oratory of San Silvestro. The oratory was open to the public during my visit, but from an artistic point of view it is not that interesting. The San Lorenzo in Palatio, on the other hand, is well worth a visit. The small church has fine decorations and features frescoes that were – I assume – also painted by the team that did the walls of the stairs. The little landscapes that we see were, in any case, painted by Paul Bril. The colourful frescoes of the ceiling feature, among others, the doctors of the church. The frescoes have recently been restored and are now in mint condition. The Latin text on the walls is from Saint Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians.

San Lorenzo in Palatio.

Sources

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