The foundation of the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries is closely linked with the Marian cult and Carmelite devotion. Built on the site of a miraculous icon of the Virgin, at the foot of a vanished house staircase, the church was entrusted by Pope Clement VIII to the Order of the Discalced Carmelite Friars and remains so to this day. Rooted in the eremitic tradition of the desert hermits, who trace their origins to the prophet Elijah and were founded in the 12th century on Mount Carmel in the Galilee region, the Discalced Carmelites in Rome received the right foot of Teresa of Avila as a gift from the Spanish Discalced Carmelites in 1617. The presence of this venerated relic has turned this church in Rome into the center of a special devotion and the dissemination of the Teresian Carmel worldwide.
- Visit time: Everyday, 10.00 am - 1.00 pm / 4.00 - 7.00 pm.
- Entrance: free.
- Organization: Ordine dei Carmelitani Scalzi.
The miracle at the origins of the church's foundation
The foundation of this church was the result of a series of events that characterized this area of the Trastevere neighborhood (“in regione Transtyberim”) at the end of the 16th century. Its name, “Santa Maria della Scala”, which means “Holy Mary of the Staircase”, is indeed linked to a small but miraculous shrine of the Madonna, an icon of the Virgin considered miraculous, placed at the foot of the entrance staircase of a small house in a block consisting of some humble dwellings, in the same place where the church stands today. According to the tradition, in 1592, a midwife named Cornelia was praying in front of this icon of the Virgin when her daughter, born mute, began to speak. According to another tradition, the icon miraculously healed a deformed child after the prayers of his mother. In any case, the news of this miracle quickly spread throughout Rome.
The staircase soon became a destination for a large number of pilgrims seeking miraculous healings, and the phenomenon took on such proportions that it convinced pope Clement VIII Aldobrandini to have a church built in the same place in 1593. The staircase, of course, no longer exists today, but the miraculous image is still preserved in the “Cappella della Madonna della Scala”, which means “Chapel of Our Lady of the Staircase”, located in the left transept of the church.
The initial construction of the complex of the church and the attached convent dates back to the time of the miracle. Pope Clement VIII entrusted the project to Francesco Capriani from Volterra, who, however, died a year later.
Due to a series of setbacks, including the death of Capriani, the completion of the interior only took place in 1610, following a revised and enlarged design by Girolamo Rainaldi, a prominent architect of Baroque Rome. The works were then finalized in 1624 with the completion of the facade.
The church of the Discalced Carmelites
With the bull “Sacrarum Religionum” on March 20, 1597, the church, still under construction, was entrusted by pope Clement VIII to the mendicant order of the Discalced Carmelite Friars, who continue to officiate here to this day. In fact, the homonymous diaconate and rectory is still entrusted to the Order of Discalced Carmelites nowadays. The diacony of Santa Maria della Scala (in Latin: Diaconia Sanctae Mariae Scalaris) is also connected to the churches of Santa Maria Antiqua and Santa Maria Nuova, in the Roman Forum. This choice reflects the great importance given to the mendicant orders as traditionally committed to fighting heresy, spreading Catholicism, and consolidating the Church's presence in the daily life of populations; a function that became even more necessary during the Counter-Reformation period, when pope Clement VIII lived.
The Carmelites (whose complete name is Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel) is a mendicant order with roots in the eremitic tradition of the Desert Fathers. Historical records about its origins remain uncertain, but it was probably founded in the 12th century on Mount Carmel in the Galilee region during the period of the Crusader States. Rather than a founder, the Carmelite order refer to a prophet of the Old Testament, Elijah, regarded as having sometimes resided in a grotto on the Mount Carmel. At the origins of the Carmelite order, during the Third Crusade (1189-1192) the first Christian hermits led by Berthold of Calabria settled in the caves of Mount Carmel following Elijah’s example, in order to pray to God. Then the spirituality of the order turned to Mary who became the queen and mistress of Carmel (Stella Maris).
According to the tradition, it was Brocard, second prior general of the order, who asked Albert, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, to provide the group of hermits with a written rule of life, dated 1209 and called rule of St. Albert, which was centered on prayer. The rule of St. Albert was approved by pope Honorius III Savelli in 1226 and confirmed by pope Gregory IX.
Due to Muslim reconquests, the hermits of Carmel begun to leave the Holy Land, but back in Europe, they encountered many difficulties in adapting the eremitic life to the new settlements. They spread their monastic order and, especially after the Second Council of Lyon in 1274, they had to change their original way of life from eremitic to mendicant.
The simple facade was executed according to Francesco Capriani from Volterra's design, following the type codified in the second half of the Sixteenth century in Rome. It consists of a double order of parastas joined by volutes and is made of travertine up to the height of the side niches. The central part slightly protrudes. The upper order is linked to the lower one by lateral volutes, completed by pairs of lesene (pilasters), a window with a balustrade, and a triangular pediment. The lower order is divided by lesene (pilasters) with Corinthian capitals and features, on the portal accessed by a flight of steps, a central niche that houses the statue of the “Madonna and Child” in arms, sculpted by Francesco Cusart in 1633.
The construction years of this church align with the Counter-Reformation period. Consequently, we can identify in it all those characteristics adhering to the Decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and concerning religious art and architecture, which were expanded by the influential treatise “Instructionum fabricae et supellectiles ecclesiasticae” by Charles Borromeo published in 1577.
The church of Santa Maria della Scala reflects some of its key points, such as the moderately elevated position accessible by a few steps; the unification of the space in a single-nave and a Latin cross plan (rectangular plan with a longitudinal axis), designed to put the altar in full view of the congregants; the visibility of the host recalling Christ’s real presence, housed in a precious ciborium; the use of confessionals in wooden furniture.
According to these prompts, the interior space of the church of Santa Maria della Scala represents a reinterpretation of the Church of the Gesù, regarded as the emblematic example of Counter-Reformation church architecture. The church has a Latin cross plan, with a single nave flanked by three chapels on each side.
The floor, adorned with numerous sepulchral slabs, was redone in the renovation completed in 1739.
On the counter-facade, the vestibule and the two Baroque wooden choirs are by Giuseppe Pannini (1756). The lower choir houses the pipe organ, built by Carlo Vegezzi Bossi in 1908 (opus 1282), equipped with 11 stops on a single manual and pedal.
The choir, the nave, and the northern arm of the transept are decorated with paintings that reproduce moldings, while the southern transept is adorned with actual stucco moldings.
Main Altar of the Savior
In the presbytery, the complex of the main altar, dedicated to the Savior, dates back to 1647-1650 and it was designed by Carlo Rainaldi. The image of the Savior is painted in a tondo on canvas (currently facing the choir). The altar was consecrated by Monsignor Prospero Lambertini, later Pope Benedict XIV Lambertini, in 1725.
The altar features the precious ciborium by the same Carlo Rainaldi (1648-1650). The ciborium is composed of a scale model of a centrally planned temple with a dome made of French red marble with ribs in gilded bronze. The temple is supported by sixteen Corinthian columns in Sicilian alabaster, called “a pecorelle” for its sheep-like veins, and edged with gilded bronze. It is adorned with four small terracotta statues of apostles painted to imitate bronze. In the center, the ciborium houses a gilded bronze Lamb of the Apocalypse above the book 'with the seven seals,' with a dazzling radiance of the same material behind it and underneath a pedestal inlaid with very fine marbles.
On the two sides, on the two arched doors of the Choir, there are statues of St. Joseph and St. Teresa of Jesus, by Simone Giorgini.
The deep space of the choir is closed at the back by an apse. The walls of the apse house large paintings of the “Baptism of Christ” and the “Wedding at Cana” on the right, and those of the “Last Supper” and the “Ascension of Christ” on the opposite side, painted by the Flemish Lucas de la Haye. In the center of the apse is a painting by Cavalier d'Arpino, “Regina Coeli with Child” (1612). The apse basin is frescoed with a “Redeemer on the throne with the Virgin and saints”.
The Chapel of Saint Teresa of Ávila
In the right transept, the Discalced Carmelite Friars took special care in the ornamentation and decoration of the “Chapel of Saint Teresa of Jesus”, dedicated to their Reformer, better known as Teresa of Ávila, who was a Carmelite nun in the 16th century Spain and is now considered one of the greatest mystics of the Church. Teresa de Ahumada y Cepada was born in Ávila on March 28, 1515, into a noble and ancient family, and she died on October 4, 1582, in Alba de Tormes. Due to the Gregorian calendar correction, her feast day is now celebrated on October 15. Teresa was beatified in 1614 and canonized on March 12, 1622, by Pope Gregory XV Ludovisi. Pope Paul VI recognized her as a Doctor of the Church on September 27, 1970. A marvelous sculptural group by Gian Lorenzo Bernini depicts her in another Carmelite church in Rome, the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria.
The construction of the chapel lasted a remarkable 11 years and was inaugurated on October 14, 1745, the eve of the saint's feast day. Pope Benedict XIV Lambertini came to visit the new altar for the inauguration.
The chapel was designed by Giovanni Paolo Pannini. This magnificent altar can certainly be considered a typical example of Baroque, a true masterpiece by Pannini. It exhibits a moderate Baroque style with precious marbles, making it one of the most sumptuous in Rome.
The central altarpiece representing “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” was executed by Francesco Mancini (1679-1755). The two stucco angels are the work of Maini. The bas-reliefs, in stucco, were modeled by Lironi.
The lateral oval in marble on the left, depicting “St. Teresa in the act of being pierced by a Seraphim”, was executed by the French sculptor Michelangelo Slodtz. The oval on the right, representing “St. Teresa in ecstasy”, is a fine work by Filippo Della Valle from Florence, who also created the two cherubs supporting the lintel.
The foot of Saint Teresa of Avila
In the chapel nearby is also the notable relic of the right foot of Saint Teresa of Ávila.
In 1616, her mortal remains, which remained uncorrupted, had the right foot amputated to be sent as a gift from the Spanish Discalced Carmelites to the Discalced Carmelites in Rome, at the convent of Santa Maria della Scala, where it arrived on May 10, 1617. It is still preserved and venerated here.
The relic, originally kept in a precious silver reliquary, is now housed in one made of gilded bronze, currently undergoing restoration and therefore not visible.
Due to the presence of this relic, Saint Teresa of Jesus received special devotion at Santa Maria della Scala. Since 1602, she has been solemnly commemorated in this church every October 5. The ceremony took place in the presence of the College of Cardinals, often joined by the Pope.
Also thanks to this important relic, this complex became the main center for the dissemination of Teresian Carmel both within and outside of Italy, reaching France, the Netherlands, Poland, Persia, and India. The Teresian Carmel refers to the spiritual tradition of Carmel associated with the life and teachings of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, two important saints and Doctors of the Catholic Church.
This tradition is especially named after Saint Teresa of Ávila, who became a reformer of the Carmelite Order in the early 1560s Spain. Faithful to the Church and in the spirit of the Council of Trent, Teresa contributed to the renewal of the entire ecclesial community. At that time, the Carmelite Order followed mitigated observances, and thus, with the help of Saint John of the Cross, her friend, Teresa founded the Discalced Carmelites, a reformed branch of the Carmelite Order, with the aim of restoring monastic life according to the principles of poverty, prayer, and community life, bringing back in this way the purity and austerity of Carmelite origins. In Italy, the Discalced Carmelites were erected as a separate juridical entity from the original Order that took the name of Order of the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance.
Saint Teresa’s writings, especially her spiritual works such as "The Book of Life" and "The Interior Castle," are considered foundational to Teresian Carmelite spirituality. Saint John of the Cross also made significant contributions to the development of the Teresian Carmel. His works, such as "Ascent of Mount Carmel" and "Dark Night of the Soul," provide profound insights into the spiritual life and the pursuit of communion with God.
The Teresian Carmel continues to be an important form of monastic life and spirituality within the Catholic Church, with many Carmelite communities following the tradition of Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint John of the Cross.
The Chapel of the Most Holy Mary of Mount Carmel
Another important chapel highlighting the deep connection between the Carmelites and the chiesa di Santa Maria della Scala is the first on the left, called “Chapel of the Most Holy Mary of Mount Carmel”. The altarpiece depicts the “Madonna presenting the scapular to St. Simon Stock and the prophet Elijah” by Cristoforo Roncalli called Il Pomarancio (1605), who is also the author of the “Eternal Father” in the pediment.
The painting refers to the tradition according to which the distinctive garment of the Carmelite order, which is the scapular made of two strips of brown cloth worn on the breast and back and fastened at the shoulders, was given to Simon Stock by the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to the tradition, Mary appeared to Simon Stock promising that all, who wore the scapular with faith and piety and who died clothed in it, would be saved.
On initiative of Saint Simon Stock, the passage from the Carmelites’ original eremitic way of life to the mendicant one become official in 1287 at the command of pope Innocent IV.
Saint Simon Stock was English Catholic priest and saint who lived in the 13th century and was an early prior of the Carmelite order. On his initiative and at the command of Pope Innocent IV, the passage from the Carmelites’ original eremitic way of life to the mendicant one become official in 1287. This change aimed to conform to the lifestyle of the mendicant religious orders. For this reason, Carmelites’ habit was similar to that of the mendicant order of the Dominicans, except that the colors were inverted, with the black cloak turned to white.
The presence of Elijah in this painting refers to the original and pristine eremitic roots of the Carmelites, reaffirming the church at the top of the stairway of devotion between Mount Carmel and Spain.