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Santa Maria Scala Coeli

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Santa Maria Scala Coeli is a 16th century pilgrimage church at the Abbey of Tre Fontane, the legendary site of the martyrdom of St Paul the Apostle. The abbey complex is at Via Acque Salvie 1, in the Ardentino quarter, but the Diocese gives the postal address as Via Laurentina 473. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary.


The church is described in online sources as being used by the Romanian Orthodox community in Rome, but this is no longer the case. It does not appear on that Church's list of pastoral outlets in Rome, to be found here.



The background history of the Abbey of Tre Fontane is to be found in the Wiki page on the abbey church, Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio alle Tre Fontane.

San ZenoEdit

It seems that, when the Cistercians established themselves here in 1140, the site was occupied by a chapel dedicated to St Zeno and 10 203 companions, martyrs, who were allegedly Christian slaves working on the construction of the Baths of Diocletian.

The legend states that they were massacred when the project was finished, and the bodies taken here. Apart from the impossibly high number of the companions (divide by one hundred to obtain a remotely possible number), the locality is at too remote a distance from the city to expect to carry a number of corpses. The massacre was allegedly outside the Porta San Sebastiano.

The identity of this St Zeno with the one having a famous chapel in Santa Prassede is very uncertain. It has been stated that his relics were moved to that basilica when the chapel was constructed in the 9th century, but alternatively there could have been two different Zenos. The evidence is insufficient to judge.

Vision of St BernardEdit

The mediaeval chronicle of the abbey described how St Bernard was saying Mass for the Dead in this chapel in the presence of Pope Innocent II in 1138, when he had a vision of angels escorting souls from Purgatory up a ladder to heaven as a result of the grace of the sacrament. This later gave a new name to the chapel -Scala Coeli or "ladder of heaven". Previously it was called the "House of Mary, Mother of God" (Mansio Sanctae Dei Genetricis Mariae).


In 1581, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese ordered the rebuilding of the church, which was completed in 1584. The architect was Giacomo della Porta. The interior decoration was completed in 1589 by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini after Farnese's death.

Modern timesEdit

The church has functioned as a pilgrimage shrine ever since.

The use of the church was officialy granted to the Romanian Orthodox community by Pope John Paul II, when His Beatitude Teoctist, Patriarch of Romania, visited Rome in November 2002. The church was already in informal use by the Romanians. Previously they had worshipped at Santa Maria del Buon Consiglio ai Monti off Via Cavour, but that church had become too small. 

However, the Romanian Orthodox have since set up a network of parishes in Italy, including several in Rome, and this church is apparently no longer used by them.


Layout and fabricEdit

The church has an irregular octagonal plan, with the diagonal sides slightly shorter than the cardinal ones. The side of the octagon facing the entrance is occupied by a square vestibule bay with a single entrance approached by a steep set of stairs (the church is over a crypt). The other cardinal sides, to the left, right and at the altar end, all have equal-sized semi-circular apses.

The fabric is in pink brick, with architectural details in travertine limestone.


The side walls are topped by a stone cornice with modillions, which runs round the entire church. Over the three apses this cornice forms the bases of triangular pediments reaching up to the cornice of the drum of the dome. Each of the diagonal walls has a square stone-framed window.

The drum of the dome is octagonal, following the basic plan of the church, but the longer sides project slightly over the apses and the entrance bay. Each of the shorter diagonal sides has a blank circular tondo. On the corners are fleur-de-lys finials, taken from the coat-of-arms of Cardinal Aldobrandini.

The low dome itself is in eight curved sectors, and is tiled. The lantern is again an octagon with four long and four short sides, and has four round-headed windows in the long sides. There is an oversized tiled cupola, slightly wider than the lantern.


On the stairs leading to the church, you might spot some writing and drawings scratched into the stone. This is claimed to have been information from the architect to the builders, although it might be 16th century graffiti.

The façade is topped by a pediment of the same design as those round the sides. This sits 

Tre Fontane -Maria Scala Coeli

on a full entablature, the cornice of which is part of the exterior cornice that runs round the church. The architrave of this is molded, and is supported by a pair of Doric pilasters at the corners of the façade. Into the rectangle defined by the architrave and pilasters is inserted an arch in brick relief, the imposts of which are joined by a string course. In the tympanum thus created is a round window in a stone frame. On the keystone of the arch is a stone relief shield of the Aldobrandini family.

The molded marble doorcase has a raised triangular pediment, over a tablet simply saying Scala Coeli between two square tasselled tablets bearing eagles.

An important feature of the façade is easily missed. If you look at the left end of the pediment cornice, which is in brick, you will see a stone bit. This is a fragment of a marble pluteus (part of a slab screen) of the 9th century, carved in a cross and wickerwork design and with an inscription mentioning Pope Nicholas I : Nicolaus PP. Andreas indign[us] servus d...


Layout and fabricEdit

The three semicircular apses contain the sanctuary and two side chapels.

The interior is dominated by the dome, which is on a cornice supported by eight ribbed Corintian pilasters folded into the corners of the octagon. The cornice has an epigraph mentioning the martyrdom of St Zeno and his companions, and the vision of St Bernard. The interior of the dome is in dark blue speckled with white stars, and has no ribs. The octagonal oculus has an ornate frame.

The apses have arches springing from Doric imposts, the capitals of which are continued as a string course around the interior.

A wooden pulpit occupies the pilaster to the right of the sanctuary.


The sanctuary floor is raised, and is approached by three steps. Apparently it contains remains of Cosmatesque work, and a fragment of a 3rd century Christian funerary inscription found locally. This is an important piece of evidence for the existence of a palaeochristian burial site here.

The altar aedicule has a pair of pink marble Corinthian columns supporting a triangular pediment. The altar is dedicated to St Bernard, and the altarpiece depicts his vision of the ladder to Heaven. This is by Desiderio De Angelis (1670-1738).

The conch of the apse contains a fine mosaic, designed by Giovanni De' Vecchi and executed by Francesco Zucchi in 1578. It shows the Madonna and Child in the centre, with putti. To the left are SS Bernard and Robert of Molesmes (the remote founder of the Cistercians), with Pope Clement VIII at the far end. To the right are SS Vincent and Anastasius, and Cardinal Aldobrandini. The latter was responsible for altering the end figures to depict himself and the contemporary pope in 1591.

Side chapelsEdit

One of the two major side chapels is dedicated to Our Lady, and has an anonymous altarpiece depicting The Annunciation which is late 16th century. The other is dedicated to SS Zeno and companions. The altarpiece here was stolen in the late 20th century, and replaced by a rather naïve and gaudily coloured modern painting.

The two diagonal walls not occupied by crypt staircases have two further altars. One is dedicated to the Crucifixion, and the altarpiece looks like a 15th century Calvary. The other is dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, with a modern altarpiece which you will either love or hate. The small aedicule here is entirely gilded, and is within a glory.


By tradition, the crypt was the prison where St Paul was held before his execution. There are two flights of stairs, allowing for a one-way flow of pilgrims on busy days. The lights should be on, but if not look for a light-switch on your way down the steps.

The crypt altar is of the same date as the church, as the frontal bears the Farnese shield. However above it is a damaged strip of Cosmatesque decoration, 13th century. The composite altarpiece has a slab of marble in the centre, into which is set a foliated cross in red stone. To the left is a very decayed fresco showing what looks like St Paul in prison. The right hand fresco, of St Zeno, has been lost and replaced by two icons in the Byzantine style, the left showing St John the Evangelist and the right, St Paul. They originally came from an iconostasis, and the way that they have been joined together here is unfortunate.

The altar is flanked by two rectangular apertures framed in marble, which look into two rather derelict voids. The left hand one contains a pagan altar to the goddess Dia, and the right hand one is the traditional prison of St Paul. The aperture frame here has a short inscription saying so, and also preserves its iron grating.


The church is open, according to the abbey website:

Daily 8:00 to 13:00, 15:00 to 18:00 (19:00 in summer).


Mass is celebrated at 16:30, Monday to Friday. There is no Mass on Sundays.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Church's page on abbey website

Info.roma web-page

"Romeartlover" web-page

Plan of church

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