Asacred staircase which Christ is said to have climbed to be sentenced to crucifixion by Pontius Pilate has been restored to its original state after nearly 300 years.
The 28 steps of the Scala Santa, or Holy Staircase, are believed to have been brought from Jerusalem to Rome in the fourth century AD by Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
The marble staircase had been encased in wood since 1723, when the pope of the time, Innocent XIII, decided that it could no longer stand the wear and tear of millions of pilgrims, who by tradition must crawl up it on their hands and knees to earn indulgences.
During a long restoration, the wooden planks were removed and the intricate 16th century frescoes on the walls and ceiling above the staircase cleaned and returned to their original lustre.
Restorers found inscriptions and graffiti scratched into the frescoes, including a message of thanks by one Italian man who had escaped being held as a slave by the Turks.
The staircase was blessed by a cardinal, Angelo De Donatis, Vicar General of the diocese of Rome, after which crowds of Catholic faithful got down on their knees and inched their way up the deeply-worn marble stairway.
In some places, the steps are worn down to a depth of 15 centimetres, testament to the generations of Catholics who have laboured their way up to the top.
The restoration of the monument, located close to one of Rome’s great basilicas, St John in Lateran, was carried out by experts from the Vatican Museums.
They found hundreds of crumpled notes stuffed down cracks in the timber boards, carrying prayers or appeals for divine intervention in illnesses and family tragedies.
“We found them step by step as we removed the floorboards – many, many little notes and coins, left as offerings,” said Paolo Violini, the coordinator of the restoration.
“The steps are made of many different kinds of marble and cleaning them revealed their beauty.”
The most significant discoveries were three ancient crosses, one made of bronze and the others of red porphyry stone, which mark the place where, according to legend, drops of Christ’s blood fell as he was led up the staircase.
Pilgrims kissed the crosses as they made their way up the steps, their feet encased in blue plastic covers to protect the marble.
The steps lead to a chapel called the Sancta Sanctorum, or Holy of Holies, so named for the many precious relics kept there. It was once the private chapel of popes.
“This is the first time in nearly 300 years that the steps have been exposed,” said Barbara Jatta, the director of the Vatican Museums.
“If you close your eyes for a moment, you can imagine yourself back in the medieval era, the last time that people scaled these steps on their knees,” said Guido Cornini, a curator from the museums.
The exposed steps will remain open to the public for 60 days, covering the whole Easter period.
The “extraordinary opening” will end on June 9, after which they will be covered up again.
The restoration of the steps was funded by a charitable organisation called the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, with donors including a British-Australian businessman and philanthropist, Sir Michael Hintze, and his wife, Lady Dorothy Hintze.