One of the Roman Catholic Church’s holiest relics, The Scala Sancta (Holy Stairs), is a set of 28 white marble steps, now in Palatio ad Sancta Sanctorum. It was brought there in A.D. 326 by St. Helen, mother of Constantine the Great, from Jerusalem. According to a legend, those are the steps which led to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate: Jesus Christ climbed them on the way to his trial. Now covered with a protective wooden layer, the stairs are open to visitors who are allowed to climb them only on their knees.
There are around twenty imitations of Scala Sancta all over the world, often used for indulgences just like the ones in Rome. The story behind the original object is so influential that its replica becomes sacred—even if the 28 only relation it actually has with the original holiness is through the physical qualities people still perceive. This physical relation makes it into a sacred object.
The question is what is the limit of this phenomenon, after how many transformations this replica will not be powerful anymore: can this process be stretched infinitely, until it becomes ridiculous?
Let us consider the example of Scala Sancta. There are factors which should be preserved during the process of converting while the others do not play any significant role in creating the powerful, sanctifying effect. It is important to distinguish which quality or factor is crucial for replica of Scala Sancta to actually be saint. These factors in this case could be a story/legend, dimensions, act of crawling on one’s knees or iconography.
If one placed a copy of Scala Sancta in a public space without any explanation and instruction as to how to use it, it would simply become a part of urban landscape: a staircase connecting point A with point B, a place to tie one’s shoe, smoke a cigarette or observe the view. On a visual level it would remain the same as the original piece but once the story behind it is missing, it becomes but an everyday, profane object.
Scala Sancta consists of 28 rectangular pieces set one on the top of another, organised in the shape of stairs. We can play with those parts, replicate them in the same material and size but assemble in a completely different order and arrangement: the pieces could become a functional object such as shelter, furniture or a playground, or perhaps something very abstract—the possibilities dormant in the shapes are endless. That being said, unaided by an explanation, the resulting object would have nothing to do with its original sacred model.
What then, if we applied the rule of crawling on one’s knees—which is an inherent and crucial element of being granted indulgence in the case of Scala Sancta—on a new object of the altered shape? The aim here would be to recreate the same experience based on the very act of climbing on one’s knees, one which however would take place within the context of a different design. All in all, it is not the shape which is defining here, but rather the involvement of a participant.
Perhaps it is not even necessary for the act to take place in real life and it could be performed instead in the virtual reality, the visual representation and principle of commitment would stay exactly the same even if tangible object would not exist.