Local tradition holds that angels frescoed the image of the Madonna, Ladder to Paradise, on a rock wall in the countryside before St. Corrado di Fuori’s arrival in 1340, and that it was discovered there on August 3, 1498. However, the Diocese of Noto, of which the Madonna della Scala is patron saint, suggests that an unknown artist created the fresco in the late 1500s or early 1600s, a period more in keeping with its style. In any case, by the time of the earthquake that destroyed the city of Noto on January 11, 1693, popular devotion had grown up around the image, surrounding it with votive lamps, ex votos left in thanks for answered prayers, and eventually an oratory. The quake demolished the chapel, but the image remained intact. In 1708, a group of Carmelite hermits took over the site and undertook the building of another church, which was blessed the following year. In 1712, Ven. Girolamo Terzo, recently appointed the group’s superior, hired an expert to detach the fresco from its rock and arranged its spectacular transfer to the church, pulled by a team of untamed oxen. Ven. Girolamo promoted devotion to the Madonna of the Ladder by distributing copies of the image on evangelical visits throughout the region. With a reputation for healings and other miracles, the hermitage became a place of pilgrimage, particularly on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, September 8.
The sanctuary suffered damage during World War I. Afterwards it was restored, and in 1919 the Catholic Church gave the Madonna, Ladder to Paradise, her own liturgical feast day, August 3. An annual festa on this date draws the people of Noto to the shrine seven miles distant, where after mass in the Carmelite chapel a statuary version of the image goes in procession through all the neighboring districts.
The image of the “Ladder to Paradise” echoes the story of Jacob (Genesis 28:12) and St. John Climacus’s Ladder of Ascent, a guide to the spiritual life written in Greek the 600s, which became popular among Western religious after its translation into Latin in the 1500s (Scala Paradisi). Here, the Virgin is identified with the way to heaven because of her role in bringing Christ to humanity and her ongoing help to seekers.
“Il Santuario Diocesano di Maria Santissima Scala del Paradiso,” Diocesi di Noto, www.diocesinoto.it
“I Siti Unesco – Noto – Feste,” Turismo in Val di Noto; il portale turistico – culturale della Sicilia sudorientale, www.turismovaldinoto.altervista.org/index.php?mod=04_I_Siti_Unesco/01_Noto/07_Feste_e_tradizioni_religiose_e_popolari (picture)