Monday, June 18, 2007

Scala Santa chapel: a visual treasure

The Holy Stairs

~from CNS

When a Vatican-led team of art restorers started scrubbing and scrutinizing what was underneath centuries of soot and grime caked on the ceiling and walls of a major shrine in Rome, they made a spectacular discovery.

A whole pictorial series of brilliantly colored, 16th-century frescoes by influential Flemish landscape artist Paul Bril and others had been hidden under the dust and dirt.

And now, after seven years of study, planning and restoration, pilgrims flocking to the Sanctuary of the Scala Santa (Holy Stairs) will be treated to the visual treasure when they enter its chapel of St. Sylvester.

Salvaged from the chapel's crumbling and blackened walls are "these very beautiful landscapes" extolling the beauty "and exuberance of nature," said Arnold Nesselrath, director of the Vatican's Byzantine, medieval and modern collections and head of the chapel's restoration work.

The landscape style had been developed in northern Europe and was brought to late-Renaissance "Roman culture by artists like the Bril brothers," he told Catholic News Service June 12 at a press conference at the shrine.

Alessandro Zuccari, professor of modern art and one of the project's historians, said although Pope Sixtus V, who commissioned the frescoes, "was stern, he loved pictures to be simple, joyous and serene."

Pope Sixtus brought in about 40 artisans to paint more than 18,000 square feet of frescoes throughout the building, which was built in the late 16th century to house the Holy Stairs and other sacred treasures.

But time and tourism took their toll, and "after centuries of degradation and little upkeep" much of the sanctuary was in dire need of renovation, said a June 12 press statement from the sanctuary.

Thanks to almost $500,000 in grants from the Los Angeles-based J. Paul Getty Trust and additional funding from the province of Rome, a small portion of the complex -- the St. Sylvester chapel -- has been returned to its original splendor.


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