The Holiest Place in Rome

by Danilo Brunetti

Art, religion, and history come together in one stunning site. Tiffany Parks has the details.

For nearly a thousand years, Rome has been a destination for Catholic pilgrims from every corner of the globe, who travel here to pray at the tomb of St. Peter, revere the many relics contained in churches and visit the city that the popes have called home for the better part of two millennia. But of the hundreds of pilgrimage sites in the city, arguably none are as powerful as the Holy Staircase and the Sancta Sanctorum.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the residence of the popes was not the Vatican, but rather the Lateran Palace, or Patriarchium. Its adja­cent church, St. John’s in Lateran, is still the cathedral of Rome (not St. Peter’s, as is widely believed), and as such, the officiai seat of the Bishop of Rome (one of the pope’s many titles). Although the majority of the medieval Patriarchium was destroyed in 16th-century restorations, a small section was preserved. This building, now incorporated into the church of San Lorenzo in Palatio, holds two unique treasures that have been dazzling visitors, religious and otherwise, for centuries. The first is the Holy Staircase. According to legend, St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Con­stantine, ordered that the staircase that Christ climbed on the way to his trial be transported to Rome. Centuries later, it was re-erected on this site.

Tradition calls for pilgrims (or anyone interested in visiting this site) to climb the stairs on their knees, and although they are covered in wood, small recesses allow visitors to reach through and touch the original steps. It is believed that Christ’s blood stained the second, 11th, and 28th steps as he descended them after his condemnation.

While the Holy Staircase is of interest pri­marily to religious travelers, the wonders above are a delight for art lovers of any stripe. In fact, art historian and critic Federico Zeri described the site as one of “the greatest artistic disco­veries of the 20th century” upon its thorough restoration. At the top of the stairs is a small chapel, originally the pope’s private chapel, known as the Sancta Sanctorum, or Holy of Ho­lies. Nearly every inch of the rich space covered with frescoes commissioned by Pope Nicholas III and painted by unnamed artists in the 13th century. Frescoes of this period are remarkably rare in Rome (even more so those that are so well preserved), making this site arguably the best in the city to study medieval frescoes. The frescoes are also of art historic significance, as they herald the return of realism in painting, after centuries of influence by idealistic Byzan­tine art. While you gaze at the glorious works of art, don’t forget to look down: under your feet is an elaborate original Cosmatesque floor.

But the chapel earned its holy name not because of the marvelous frescoes, but rather due to the fact that it housed multiple relics that were brought here as far back as the 9th century. Many of them have since been relo­cated to the Vatican but a few remain. Among them, a fragment of the table of the last sup­per, and the so-called Acheropita, a depiction of Christ the Redeemer that was believed to have been painted, not by human hands, but rather by St. Luke with the help of an angel.

Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, 14.

Open Mon-Sat, 9:30am-12:40pm and 3-5:10pm. (Last entrance 30 minutes before closing.) €3.50