According to tradition, the stairs were brought to Rome by St. Helena in the 4th century. The mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, it is believed that she restored many holy sites in the Holy Land and discovered the True Cross, in addition to other relics.
The stairs, which are near the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, were opened to the public approximately 400 years ago.
They are made of white marble, but are encased in wood for protection. In places, there are squares cut out of the wood where pilgrims can reach down to touch the marble. There are also glass cases protecting spots believed to have marks of the bloody footprint of Christ.
Pilgrims who visit the stairs must ascend them on their knees as a sign of piety and reverence, though they can choose how to pray, whether by saying a short prayer on each step or meditating on the Passion of Christ.
Those who cannot ascend on their knees may kneel on the first step and then walk up one of the other staircases to reach the top. The names of people who have visited the stairs since their opening can be seen carved with the date of their visit along these other staircases.
The faithful can also attain an indulgence, or remittance of temporal punishment due to sin, by climbing the stairs. To receive a plenary indulgence, they must ascend the entire staircase. Otherwise, a partial indulgence may be gained for every step on their knees while meditating on the Passion of Christ. The usual conditions for an indulgence must be met: making a sacramental confession, receiving the Eucharist, praying for the intentions of the Pope and being free of all attachment to sin.