Monday, January 15, 2018

Rome Journal: The Holy Stairs

Scala Sancta (photograph by Hallie Cohen)
Many times great ecclesiastical and architectural projects go hand and hand. Makes sense, no? What better way to memorialize the sacred than with a temporal presence that attests to the power of God. Great earthly monuments to God, are a kind of plenary indulgence, providing a built-in insurance against punishment. The history of the relationship between the architect Domenico Fontana and Pope Sixtus V exemplifies one of the great ecclesiastical and architectural collaborations of Roman history. Occurring in the latter part of the 16th century, in the years of the Counter-Reformation (when the Catholic church needed an infusion of charismatic energy) this collaboration united the Sancta Santorum, the Pope’s Holy Chapel built in 1277 with the Holy Stairs (Scala Sancta) originally brought from Jerusalem by the Emperor Constantine’s mother Helen in 326 A.D. The project was enormous involving the destruction of the old Patriarchia, but left in its wake one of the most holy sites in Rome, a fresco adorned staircase that supplicants must ascend on their knees to enter the chapel with its memorial to the martyrs like the Evangelicals, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (Fontana also worked on the nearby Basilico di San Giovanni in Laterano, one of the great monuments to early Christendom). The chapel also contains relics like a piece of wood that comprised one of the benches of The Last Supper. What’s striking is the lengths to which some people will go to secure their salvation.

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