Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
How to Climb up or Down Stairs
with Art and Without Vanity?
Rome’s Holy Staircase
A Taste for Reflection
Saint of the Day – Saturday, June 25, 1983
Original audio in portughese and illustrated with some pictures
Unlike ancient men, contemporary men have almost no idea what a staircase is. What is a staircase? It is a series of steps that allow us to go from one floor to another by non-mechanical means. An elevator allows us to get from one floor to another by mechanical means; a staircase does it by non-mechanical and natural means--calcantibus pedibus—using our feet.
That is the definition of a staircase, which people hardly understand anymore. In modern architecture, you hardly ever see staircases stand out. The tendency is to hide stairs as much as possible, making halls in which the stairs play no ornamental role.
Take a staircase you use often and with commendable dynamism—not without some danger for the handrail—the Seat of the Reign of Mary’s staircase. In this older residential building in the Higienopolis architect still had some hints of old art and tried to give the stairway a certain nobility. He covered it with wainscoting so the part underneath the staircase is visible, although the fence’s colonnade is objectionable. I would have made another handrail if we had organized the seat with plentiful funds. This original banister has an interesting side in that it is part of a collection of objects, shapes, and colors that inspired the architect when that was fashionable.
You find an example of a stairway without tradition or beauty in the Sao Bento Hermitage, which is so dear to me. It is a cascade of steps in a straight line to provide access between SB’s top and bottom floors, nothing more! It has on both sides a sort of essential handrail to hold when climbing and makes the climb a little easier when the person decides to use it. It is a staircase according to the new conception.
Although the Sao Bento building must look old to you, this stairway corresponds to this modern conception. Behind this dual conception, there is a dual conception of human action. And there is a double conception of man behind this double conception of human action. Only when you get there do you appreciate properly the stairways we will now look at.
What is this conception of human actions? The concept of human action implied in old staircases is that every staircase must have something ornamental as much as possible—naturally, within common sense; this cannot happen everywhere and all the time. It should have something decorative, so it helps man to act and brings out something of man while hiding or downplaying human misery.
The most elementary idea about a staircase is that it is made for us to go up and down. A staircase’s concept cannot be more primal. Now, by going up and down, man performs two operations that show his misery but can well show his greatness.
Even the most modest human person must be surrounded with respect, which is one of life’s greatest goods. Being respected is worth much more than being loved. A staircase is made to show respect to man because everything he uses should be made to enhance his nature’s qualities and excellences and disguise some miseries of his condition.
What is the misery of man’s condition? To climb a staircase, man has some problems that I would call theatrical. When a person climbs a staircase, he is fighting the law of gravity. True, according to the Law of Newton, the farther he gets from the ground, the less gravity weighs him down, but the more tired his muscles become.
In short, although he may gain something by taking a distance from the ground, he loses some elasticity and vigor as he climbs. At the end of a high staircase, however discreetly, the sign of misery shows: tiredness. Before the original sin, humans operated without fatigue. Work was painless, pleasant, and exciting. But after original sin, work became difficult, the law of gravity began to fight against us, and people are always battling against the ground. The ground leads people to lie down, steady themselves, and step firmly. While I have never read anything about it, I wonder if one should interpret the tapping of Spaniards as a victory of man over the principle of gravity. A victory of spirit over matter. In other words, when very much taken by an idea, he tapdances, feels no action of gravity, and his muscles proclaim a victory over Newton’s law! There he goes!
Talking the other day with some of our people in Madrid, they organized a tap dance with young men from Sevilla for me to hear. Listening to it, I enjoyed its picturesque aspects because I had seen a tap dance before.
Each nation has its splendor, genius, and way of being. The minuet is another manifestation of victory over the law of gravity. In their manner of stepping, a man and a lady seem to weigh as little as a feather and do the ground more honor to be touched by them than by anything else. They flaunt their indifference to the principle of gravity and make long reverences, not with the weariness of one sitting down but the agility of bowing before someone he respects. Then they reerect themselves with gallantry and continue dancing.
Who doesn’t see that the French “douceur de vivre” shines in such a thing? Here I will not talk about various forms of dance but want to show you the role of the principle of gravity in human behavior to give us the opportunity and taste to reflect. Because that way, reflecting is pleasant. I understand there are different tastes, but reflecting by reading some treatises and reasoning is incomplete. Going from practice to doctrine, getting to know the top doctrine, immersing oneself in punctilious practice, and looking there for confirmation of doctrinal cogitations or illustration of higher doctrinal cogitations is going up and down stairs with the lightness of a minuet—and is highly pleasing. But it is pleasing in the good sense of the word: it is good for the soul. It is enjoyable and good for the soul and makes a person feel more spiritual. It accentuates the aspects whereby a person is more like God, and being like God is the supreme honor, the ultimate end, and the ultimate good.
Returning to stairs, you can imagine a gentleman or lady or the high or middle class and a male or female employee climbing a staircase at any age and in any circumstance. At the end of the climb, something withers a bit.
You may say: “but Dr. Plinio, you don’t know me; I climb 2 or 3 steps at a time!” Don’t be fooled; you know how human nature pays a tribute to the years and original sin, even in early youth. Those who climb a staircase are subject not only to this human misery but also this one: seen from above, a person climbing a staircase looks very small, and man does not like being seen from above. The people we respect, we like to see on top.
That was about climbing. Now we have the descent. It is another operation in which human misery appears as in everything humans do, and they need to know how to disguise it. For example, I lean slightly on my chin while speaking and simultaneously make a slight effort to order the ideas I put forward. This position is slightly interrogative because I am trying to figure something out, and there’s always some effort involved. Now, either I do it with the instinctive lightness with which everyone does it, or I will degrade myself because the weight of a tired jaw is ugly, and so is the effort of a reflective mind!
Someone may say that these little things are trifles. I think to consider them is to live; the opposite is to vegetate. Seeing from below, a person walking down some stairs gives the impression of an avalanche. He conveys a decaying impression if he does not go down with dignity. His health and agility of mind are declining, as are his conversation, virtue, and love of God. It’s horrible not to descend stairs correctly and convey the impression you are falling.
The art of climbing up and descending stairs must disguise this as much as possible because of man’s respect for himself and others: he must veil his misery. Every man must be ashamed of his misery. I do not say shame concerning the 6th and 9th commandments or impurity. Man must understand that his misery is a punishment for a sin his ancestors committed in paradise and that he bears that scourge. Therefore, it reflects that sin, to which he added his own sins, and he must disguise it as a tribute to virtue.
Maintien [the art of keeping a bearing] demands an effort. It is a tribute that man’s weak sides pay to what he would have been but for sin. It is beautiful, noble, and worth seeing like this. One must construct a staircase in such a way as to serve as a setting for man to go up and come down properly in modest dwellings but also in palaces. A palace should glorify that action because it is far more than a residence of comfort – it is a dwelling of glory! Here is properly the definition of a palace: a place where glory resides, a dwelling fit for glory. Hence a palace must allow a person to climb and descend gloriously.
Which is harder, going up or coming down? In theory, it is more glorious to go up. For example, the sun shows more gloriously when rising on the horizon. When it descends, it veils its glory in nightly shadows. So, in theory, it is more glorious to go up. It so happens that man’s operations occur in the presence of God and men. If it is true that climbing a staircase with glory is a wonderful thing in the eyes of God, it is more beautiful to descend in people’s eyes.
Why? Because he who ascends is seen from the top down, and he who comes down is seen from the bottom up. One shows one’s glory better to someone below than to someone above, and thus there is an unexpected crossover of perspectives. How should one go down a staircase gloriously? First, he must not be mega. One must descend a staircase gloriously when one is entitled to glory! One must come down a staircase with distinction when one is distinguished or in a prominent situation. Every human creature must come down a staircase correctly. Every human creature should be correct. How do you go down the stairs incorrectly? By giving the impression that you have lost control of yourself and will fall.
Therefore, someone who is agile and runs down a stairway two steps at a time should not do so because he gives the impression of an avalanche crashing down a mountain. The law of gravity pulls man down; if he rushes in that direction, he gives the impression of surrendering and being a loser, a rolling wreck. So if a person has to go down a staircase quickly to retain correctness. He must take an attitude that clearly shows he is in a hurry but entirely in control of himself. His torso and head should be very tight and erect.
If you don’t do this, you don’t descend a staircase correctly but vilely. No man has the right to do such a vile thing. By being human, every man should be correct. I am not sure those who talk so much about human dignity know what the word human means. They rarely use the word dignity; they don’t understand these things, the notion of which has faded. Yet, [dignity] is the light of man! When a person has the right to a distinguished situation because of his age or circumstances, he must go down the stairs not slowly or roughly but gradually, so those below understand all phases of the operation; advancing one foot, stepping, and advancing the other. Those below are entitled to see two things: first, the person going down is not overly paying attention to what he is doing but thinking of something higher. It is horrible to go down the stairs paying attention. He has to look “degagé” [relaxed, natural] as if saying, “I am what I am! By his look and attitude, he makes his presential action more felt as he draws closer to the one below. When he gets very close, his presential action has become full, and what has arrived is not just a ‘flesh-and-bones-package’ but a soul.
That is how one should do it. Then a descent is an event. The ancients, who had a sense of things, made sure that prominent figures wore a cape with a train (suitable to their sex). Bishops would wear a gala cape. Great state dignitaries, kings, princes, and lower personages wore a cape to descend a staircase according to their condition.
As a dignitary descends, behind him goes a page carrying the train, which forms his backdrop. As he descends, the train unfolds, and when he gets to the bottom, the train deploys entirely, and the descent becomes an event.
What should an ascent resemble? It should be done so the one ascending looks at people above in a courteous, considerate, and respectful way, depending on the case. But he should look as if he were already close. His soul has to precede his body and appear in his first look to the one above. He then climbs every step while avoiding any manifestation of tiredness or heaviness, smiling at times. When he gets a little closer, he starts addressing the one above to give him the impression that there’s hardly any distance to cover, so he feels equaled or surpassed.
Then you will understand the beautiful staircases we are going to show here. I have shortened this theory because otherwise, there would be no time to see the staircases. They are lovely but can only be fully understood after this explanation.
Let’s analyze them. There you have a palace. It’s the entrance to a palace and remember that, in old palaces, the noble floor is not the ground but the top floor. All distinguished guests entered a hall with a monumental staircase and were ushered to the top floor, where the reception halls were. Everything there is monumental. You see a staircase, the walls all covered with beautiful paintings, perhaps with marble slabs and sculptures here and here. The staircase is the center of the picture, and all those noble forms, arches, and panels are there to highlight the staircase. The hall is a passage around the staircase to climb or descend. Therefore, the staircase is the room’s raison d'être. The rest is ornamentation.
Ancient palace ceilings were very high. The ancients liked high ceilings because they had a high ceiling internally in their minds. Today we have low ceilings in our minds; they had high ceilings. Because of this, staircases were high. I believe this staircase has about 15 steps. Because of the shape of the handrail, we can assume there are two or three more besides the steps we see. You can see how much nicer this handrail is than the one in the Seat of the Reign of Mary. Everything here is marble, well-worked columns, etc.; in the four corners, you see cupids or little angels placed two below and two above. More about them in a moment. The staircase is wide enough to let two people pass. Why? Because every noble action requires a suitable width. And every tight and narrow staircase is inelegant. Plentifulness is a natural result of greatness, so a staircase must have these things.
A staircase must be wide also because, in the old days, it was beautiful for an old lady to be fragile. Today it is lovely to be a woman so strong as to compete with men—something once seen as horrible. A woman was supposed to be fragile, delicate, fine, and superior, whom a man helped descend by giving her his hand. He would place his hand at such height, and they would both go down. Or he would lend her his arm. Later, when elegant manners subsided, the man would give his arm, and he and the lady would walk arm-in-arm down the stairs so the descent would be easy on her frailty. If a lady came down in a big balloon skirt with a big cape, a lackey, etc., she could almost fill the whole staircase as a natural setting for her grandeur.
The staircase and well are ornaments to man’s ascent and descent. It imposes on both man and lady the art of ascending and descending in a way befitting that staircase. You can easily see the concern people had to dignify human nature.
Someone may say: Dr. Plinio, you are mistaken. It is fine to dignify nobles, and you imagine noble people or churchmen all the time. How do you dignify commoners? You only imagine a commoner carrying someone’s train up the staircase. How does that dignify him? You only imagine a commoner outside watching eminent people going up and down--an ambassador or ambassadress. You do not imagine a commoner going up or down. How does that dignify him?
The principle is that every time a human being is glorified, all humankind is glorified. For example, if students in the same class received the first three prizes of the year in a high school, this dignifies all students in that class even though not everyone received the first prize. One assumes that something passed from the first-placed to the others who received no award, who acquired some brilliance by living with the award winners.
It is similar to iron filings long in contact with a magnet. At a certain point, the iron itself begins to attract. Nothing elevates a commoner more than seeing an eminent personage, an ambassador, an ambassadress, the general, a bishop, a minister, or a count ascending or descending stairs with dignity.
Why? Because we are all human and are dignified when one of us is dignified, and are demeaned when something shameful or sinister happens to someone else.
Take these little figures. What do you think of them? What are they? They are undefined because it is unclear whether they are mythological characters or existing children. One has the impression they represent mythological characters. What kind of mythological characters? Little angels? Little cupids? We do not know. Even worse, they are chubby, plump, and fundamentally ugly, made for laziness, completely nonchalant with the looks of someone who does whatever he wants and only finds it pleasant to do what is enjoyable; there is no inner struggle at all. They show no difficulty in reflecting but give the impression their heads don’t work and will never mature.
As I see it, this represents an eternal imbecile. I don’t condemn it because the Church approves it, so who am I to condemn it? I am not denouncing the idea of having angels represented as children but of looking like stupid children. Imbecility is what I criticize. This stupidity is part of the frivolity that was the defect of that time, which prepared the French Revolution. It is the frivolity, carelessness, and lack of fighting spirit with which the nobility, clergy, and bourgeoisie received the French Revolution. The collapse was not due because of four little figures like that on that staircase but because a taste for things like that started to come in and completely wiped them out.
A person with an egalitarian spirit naturally cannot like those stairs because a staircase is an image of hierarchy. Do we not talk about social scale? Do we not talk about a scale of values? Scales and stairs are variants. Such a staircase obviously displays hierarchy. There are many photographs of ancient ceremonials with people going down, all in illustrious situations but arranged on the stairs according to their station. The most prominent people are at the bottom, leading the procession, and the less important are at the top, almost invisible to the viewer, while those below are closer to the lens. The stairs serve as a support for the social scale. Evidently, egalitarians cannot like this. A subway escalator is the opposite of stairs.
You will be surprised, but I will leap straight to the top of these cogitations. Who was it [in history] that ascended with the most nobility, majesty, dignity, and splendor? Which was the most majestic ever ascent of a ramp, mountain, or staircase in history? By someone persecuted, humiliated, buffeted, scorned, and covered with wounds from the top of his head to the soles of his feet and condemned to death? Our Lord Jesus Christ—the Person before whose Name every knee must bend. Everything He did was infinitely noble and, in situations most fitting to heap shame, contempt, disgust, and humiliation. He was the infinitely humble, the infinitely noble.
Infinitely humble in the sense that humility is a virtue with its foundation in God, Who is the truth. In that sense, He was not infinite in His human nature but was unfathomably humble. On the other hand, He was noble as no king has ever been. No one has ever had anything remotely resembling His nobility. We can imagine Him climbing Mount Tabor with the three apostles, to be transfigured, and His steps ascending the Tabor. Glorification awaited Him atop the mountain. You can imagine how He glorified Himself more and more mysteriously with each step, radiating more and more gloriously to the astonished and delighted apostles climbing after Him and not knowing what to say.
We can imagine Him climbing the steps of Pilate’s praetorium. Dignified, affirmative, sure of Himself, looking down on Pilate with a Father’s sadness, but at the same time with the majesty of God.
We can imagine His sublimity climbing the slopes of Calvary with the Cross on his back. With what sublimity, after three falls, disfigured and crushed like a worm, He climbed toward the supreme sacrifice. Who accompanied Him? Simon of Cyrene was helping Our Lord carry the Cross and probably realized Our Lord was the One helping him! Simon was absorbed in adoration, and his soul was on fire! We do not know to what extent the holy women, torn with pain, could see the majesty of the scene. But we know that one was above all others and saw everything in pain but admiring all the splendor of His ascent: Our Lady! With her Queen Mother’s majesty, She understood and adored Her Son’s majesty. She looks on as the King ascends to something infinitely higher than a throne. How noble it is for a king to climb the three or four steps separating him from his throne! But how infinitely higher and nobler it is to climb the distance separating the God-Man from the Cross on which He died for us! Nobody understands nobility if he does not imagine this. No one has a comprehensive idea of the Passion if they do not imagine the majesty of our climbing Lord.
Here is the criticism I have to make about that staircase. While it is beautiful, speaks of pleasure, and shows some nobility, there is something unreal about it. Life is not only that. Life on this earth is a participation in the life, Passion and death of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Life on earth is a struggle for the Kingdom of Christ. This staircase does not seem made for crusaders to climb up and down! You can see that I admire it when compared to modern staircases.
The noblest staircase I ever saw in my life, I climbed not with my feet but on my knees. It is Rome’s Scala Santa, the holy staircase which Our Lord climbed during His Passion. It is a stone staircase transported to Rome, covered with wood so climbing pilgrims will not wear it down. It looked like a very ordinary marble, one of those kitchen sink marbles. There are glass-covered look-through holes in the wood in the places where Our Lord shed drops of His precious Blood. The pilgrim can kneel, touch the glass, recite his prayers and wishes, and go up on his knees the stairs climbed by the wounded and bruised divine Feet soon to be pierced at the Crucifixion for our sake. Although ordinary, this is the staircase of staircases to which no other can compare!
Let us now look at other staircases so we can leave and get some rest.
Here you see a palace staircase. As I said, a palace is a dwelling of glory. The entrance is through this archway between two flights of stairs. The two marble lions stand there, looking at those entering. The king of the jungle affirms the palace’s majesty to visitors as if warning: in this house, I, king of the jungle, am but a servant; admire my nobility and gauge by it the nobility of the one I serve!
This is a very tall building. This first arch leads to a back room. There you have a sculpture, a chandelier and a set of arches. It is very elegant and light, and the degree and tonality of light differ from here to here so that an onlooker can see the color and density of different lights, which is very pleasing to the eye.
The staircase is very long because the building is very tall. I think this staircase has about forty steps which are not too steep, so to prevent the lengthy steps from looking ugly, they disguise the colonnades with broader support points and form narrow and wide ones that hide the length of the stairs and make it more pleasant to look at.
To each square corresponds a support column going all the way down and helping to carry the weight of the stairs. There are tapestries or mosaics in the space between columns. They are scenes; I can see at least some buildings and people moving around in those two panels, and there’s another one on this side. Light filters through these high arches, giving more color to the handrails here than those on the other side; the plays of light are one of the attractions of the staircase.
It is a staircase in a palace where glory resides, and to disguise the weariness man feels at the height of glory, the thousand tiny steps give it almost the character of a ramp. Why not make a ramp? Because fatigue rebounds, and one begins to fight the slide. To descend with the least effort, they made little steps that a person can take, almost as if he was walking down a corridor while coming from a high distance. In the center, above this arch, you see a terrace with a balustrade from where one can stand to observe. We can imagine, for example, if she is receiving a friend, the lady of the house standing there after being told that her friend’s carriage has arrived. The friend has gotten off the carriage, and the ladies in waiting are moving to greet and invite her, etc. A lackey is already picking up her train to carry, and she is coming in.
The lady above says a kind word to her in a voice with a silver timbre! She looks up, and they both bow to each other. Then the house lady moves to the top of the stairs to welcome the arriving lady. If the latter deserves great consideration, she goes down a few steps depending on her guest’s category. A staircase’s function is to ennoble the function of going up and down and to give [dignity] to life. It is a result of this system. I remember reading a well-known book by Lenotre, Gens de la vieille France, telling memories of foreigners who visited Paris and were amazed by the courtesy people showed in the streets. For example, when two carriages collided, the two coachmen would get off, stop in front of each other, and each would take off his three-pointed hat to the other. Then each would apologize for the bump as if he was the only one to blame; they would smile and then amicably untangle the two carriages, put everything in order, and renew their greetings. From the back of the carriage, passengers also smiled, and the thing went on. That was a crash. Why were these coachmen so refined? When you look at their masters, you understand how commoners benefit from such things.
This here is the top. You see a staircase starting to my right. It forms a kind of gallery upstairs from which you can see what’s going on below. As guests arrive downstairs, there is a reception or meeting; maybe the staircase ends up in the reception room. Or it could be another hall or the building’s entrance hall. Up on top, you see this grill, which is a real wonder. Each of these grills displays a fleur-de-lis in the center, from whose peduncle a kind of snail stands out, abutting to a central shield where I see a female profile but not very clearly.
The gallery at the top is all ornated with light figures, and the same thing is at the bottom. All this has an unum; two long swirls of such figures come from this central figure, and one follows the stairway all the way down. See how this unum—the metaphysical principle of unity—is aptly expressed there. In the middle is the starting point of all things! What do they make it so delicate and beautiful? It is to prevent one from falling; you can lean over nicely and say a kind word to the one who is down. It is a jewel to serve as a support point for a person---thus protecting man from catastrophe with a jewel! What are those socialist proclamations about human dignity worth compared to that?
I think you’d rather not have me talk about socialism but keep looking at staircases, but this was the last one, and our meeting is over.