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things 14
summer 2001
A holy hand
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Jane Stevenson
Meeting in Pisa

Someone must have told the English about holy simplicity; which was probably a mistake, since they tend to confuse it with good modern design. If IKEA ever sees fit to launch a new line in cathedral furnishings, they'll find themselves besieged by ravening hordes of Anglican deans waving huge diocesan cheque books. Apart from representing a confusion of substance with accidence, this mentality is a poor preparation for visiting the Mediterranean, something which I should perhaps have remembered when I bumped into the Challoners in Pisa cathedral.

Personally, I think there are worse places to while away a few otherwise useless hours. Its enchantments begin before you even get inside. From a distance, the external walls give the illusion of unsullied white marble. But as you approach this sermon in stone more closely, you find imperial inscriptions, early Christian gravestones, and Goths telling posterity that Agulilf was here, fitted together at random, like crazy paving. Having absorbed this lesson on time and mutability, you wander inside, where you find that what isn't intarsia is scagliola, what isn't scagliola is mosaic, and what isn't mosaic is fresco.

When they ran out of surfaces to decorate, they gilded the lot and invested some millions of nun-hours in sacred millinery.... Anyway. On this occasion, I was minding my own business in front of the shrine of St James when I heard no-nonsense footwear clicking to a halt behind me, and a familiar voice yipped, 'Good Lord, it's Ben Digby! What are you doing?' It was Phoebe and Geoffrey, looking jaded, hot and aggrieved.

'Hello, Phoebe,' I said, with reserve, crossing myself and getting to my feet. 'Are you fellow-victims of the missing 4.30 to Gatwick? I'm trying to interest St James in its replacement, which is probably being cobbled together from balsa wood and old elastic bands even as we speak.'

'I didn't know you were a Catholic,' said Phoebe, looking at me suspiciously as if she had just heard that I was a divorcÚ, an alcoholic, or not safe in taxis. Geoffrey, meanwhile, was peering over my shoulder with Anglican disesteem.

'Lovely, isn't it?' I said, turning to survey the altar, where Cyclopean masses of gilt alabaster mounted skyward. The rock-crystal casket in the centre contained a wreath of artificial flowers made of porphyry, and a gold hand, raised in a gesture of benediction, and wearing a ring with a sapphire the size of a walnut.

'It can't be the right hand,' said Geoffrey censoriously. 'Actually, the whole of St James is in Compostela. I've been.' So there, you beastly Papist idolater.

'It's been here since 1272,' I pointed out.
'No it hasn't.' They had clearly reached the fractious stage. 'I'm sorry,' said Geoffrey, who wasn't, 'either a thing is, or it isn't. If it's in Compostela, it can't be here.'(That's where tuppenny-ha'penny logic gets you. I blame it on public-school Platonism, myself.) 'It depends what you mean by 'real'. There's an extremely beautiful legend; there've been dozens and dozens of miracles; and what's more, the archbishop of Pisa says it's real, and he ought to know. If you don't believe the archbishop, the Rough Guide says it's real too. Anyway, there are precedents. Did you know that Our Lord had no fewer than six foreskins?'
'Oh, Ben! you can't pretend to believe that!'
'Of course I do. And the Immaculate Conception. And unicorns.'

It's always very interesting, with the English, when they've been thinking you're 'persons like ourselves' and find out you aren't. I smiled sweetly. Geoffrey opened his mouth, but his wife ruthlessly forestalled him.

'I think we should all go and have something to eat,' she said with decision. 'I'm sure Ben can find us somewhere nice.' Was I wrong to deduce at this point that neither of them spoke Italian? Geoffrey's conscience was evidently giving him trouble. Was he going to put me in my place, or employ me as trusty native guide? Principle, or pragmatism?

'Super,' he said heartily, looking at his watch. 'We've got hours yet.' No one could deny that I ordered them an excellent dinner. But all the same, as we said our farewells in the cold light of dawn, I could only suspect that I was off the Old Rectory Christmas card list for good.

things 14, summer 2001

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