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Around 313 AD when Christianity was legalized in Rome, the emperor Constantine gave the reigning Pope Miltiades a residence on the south side of Rome.  This palace belonged to Constantine's second wife's family, that of the vanquished Maxentius.  The Basilica di San Giovanni di Laterano (St. John of Lateran) was built nearby and became the Cathedral of Rome, as it remains today.  The Lateran Palace remained the papal residence until the period when the papacy was removed to Avignon (1309-76).  When the papal court returned to Rome, they found the palace to be in disrepair beyond salvage.  Most of it was demolished.  A few small portions were kept and repaired.  One of these is the building which housed the pope's private chapel.  Today it houses the private chapel, the St. Lawrence Chapel, and the Sacred Stairs (Scala Sancta).  Inside the private chapel is the Sancta Sanctorum - the Holy of Holies.




The facade of the building is quite plain and attracts little attention from those unaware of the contents.




Information is in short supply on the art works and other contents.  The Latin inscription reads "This is your hour under the power of darkness."





The Latin inscription says, "The kiss to betray the Son of Man."




These twenty-eight marble steps called the Scala Sancta (Holy Stairs) were the steps of the palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem.  They were brought to Rome as sacred relics by St. Helena since they were the steps that Jesus would have ascended to be brought before Pilate.  Today they have a wood covering with plexiglas-filled slots on the fronts and tops of the steps to allow viewing the marble surface.  Christian pilgrims follow the custom established by pontiffs for centuries and climb the stairs on their knees.  They pause at each step to say a prayer and reflect on the suffering of Christ as he endured his trial, scourging, and crucifixion.  A small prayer booklet is available from the Passionist Fathers who are the custodians of the shrine.




The walls, ceilings, and cupola of the upper floor are decorated with frescoes thought to have been done by the students of the Cavallini school.




Entrance to the personal Papal Chapel  is not open to the general public.  I've found the way to get in if I can ever return to Rome.  Meanwhile, I had to content myself with taking a picture of the altar from outside through the square barred covering over the few windows.  My camera lens fortuitously fit inside the grid so I could take a few pictures.  The object atop the altar is the Acheropite image, that is to say an image not painted by human hand.  Although tradition links the image of Jesus to St. Luke the Evangelist, research in 1907 indicated it to be of Roman manufacture probably in the 5th or 6th century AD.  There's many interpretations of the contents of the altar itself.  It's probably only safe to assume it contains those relics which the pope regards as being of the highest significance to the Church. 




The next room over is the St. Lawrence Chapel from the 16th century heavily adorned with frescoes.




The vaulted ceiling of the St. Lawrence with frescoes.




Some of the stained glass windows in the St. Lawrence Chapel.




There is a plain stairway on either side of the Scala Sancta.



Latin inscription: "Not my will but Thine be done."




Dedication inscription from Pope Pius IX, Pontifex Maximus, 1875 AD, 29th year of his papacy.