Facing the stairway of faith

2013-01-24 L’Osservatore Romano

In our profession as art historians committed to safeguarding our patrimony there are some felicitous coincidences. The new year brings us a particularly fortunate one. Thanks to the Libreria Editrice Vaticana [Vatican Publishing House] a small book – easy to read, very clear and full of information – has come out on the Scala Santa [Holy Staircase] and the Sancta Sanctorum [Holy of Holies]. It is not a history of the shrine but “a historical account which, having taken the real or virtual visitor by the hand, as it were, leads him step by step to discover the events, important figures, architectural structures,  frescoes, mosaics, liturgy and everything else that has contributed to the fame of this Shrine,  unique of its kind in Rome.

Preserved here in the Chapel of the Holy of Holies, dedicated in 1279 by Nicholas III Orsini, are the most venerable relics of Christendom; and the most important of them all is the Holy Face, Acheiropoeton [not made by human hands]. Here, in the course of centuries the Holy Staircase came into being and is the object of a devotion that is still very much alive. Tradition claims that its 28 marble steps originally came from Pilate's Praetorium and that on Good Friday Christ bathed them in his blood.

During the years of his pontificate Sixtus V Peretti had the  Scala Santa encased in a monumental edifice that bears the architect's name, Domenico Fontana, and the date, 1589, thereby legitimizing a practical devotion which, over and above the halo of legends that surrounds it, still stands as a wonderful monument to popular piety.

Leo III, Sergius III, Celestine III, the Popes of  long ago who were protagonists of the sombre, violent early Middle Ages, feature in the historical account by Fr Cempanari and Fr Amodei and pilgrims in their masses file past, arriving in Rome from every corner of Europe to venerate the Holy Face and to meditate, while ascending the Scalae Pylati [Pilate's stairway] on their knees on the Redeemer's passion and death.

Let us meet the artists – already influenced by the new art of Pietro Cavallini, of Arnolfo, of Giotto – who painted the frescoes of  the martyrdom of the Proto-Apostles Peter and Paul on the walls of the Sancta Sanctorum and the many, representatives of the figurative culture of the latest Roman Mannerism who peopled with Old and New Testament stories the walls and vaults of the Holy Stairway, indeed of the stairs, because two on each side flank the one venerated as a relic. Moreover it barely suffices to recall their names: Ferraù Fenzoni, Giovanni Baglione, Paul Bril, Andrea Lilio, Baldassare Croce, under the direction of Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra, responsible for the most important “touches” of frescoists in the years of Sixtus V.

Well, at the same time as the publication of the book on the Scala Santa, the important restoration work has begun.  From this moment it will involve for at least three years the hundreds of metres of murals that decorate the walls and vaults of the shrine, worked on by the fresco painters at the service of Domenico Fontana in the last years of the 1680s. While I am writing this article the scaffolding is being erected for the first stage of the vast intervention. Work is due to begin on 1 February 2013.