In gray Seattle, it’s easy to feel a sense of mystery as you walk the streets. The clouds hide the sun, and the wind rushes (sometimes), as if hiding secret voices.
The mystery is only greater now, as people walk silent and masked, faces veiled, paths parallel and never approaching. Each one is a rook, traversing God’s great chessboard, along routes laid out from above, nodding mutely to passers-by with unseeing eyes.
On a cloudy and windy day, I took students to visit St. James Cathedral, on First Hill, overlooking the water. One hundred years ago this building stood alone in the wake of the Great Seattle Fire, a sort of beacon. Today it’s surrounded by office towers and apartment buildings that make it seem smaller and more hidden. Thus it too, once bright and obvious, has become a mystery.
The structure, like many cathedrals, has a “cruciform” architectural plan; intersecting halls make a cross shape spoken to the sky. It’s filled with sculptures and paintings of varying quality, but its finest art treasure crouches in a side chapel. Here, hidden from the casual visitor, is an opulent Renaissance painting by Neri di Bicci.
This painting is what is called an altarpiece, meant to adorn the high altar of a Florentine church, though it currently hangs on a south-facing wall far distant from any altar. At its center is Jesus and his mother, and alongside are saints paying noble obeisance. One of them, St. Lawrence, holds the griddle on which he was cooked when he denied Caesar the treasures of God.
And the painting is luxuriant. One can’t help but stare at it, and so all of us stared. In fifteenth century Italy, it was not uncommon to paint bright figures and then fill in the blanks with gold, as if everyone hovered in a heavenly sky. The saints’ garments are piling and vivid, gilded with starbursts, acanthus and thistle. Beneath, their names are inscribed in glossy onyx letters with grand flourishes. Mary sits on a marble throne, pristine and massive. Centermost, the baby Jesus lolls on a breast of night-sky blue.
The city of Seattle was incorporated in 1869; this painting was made in 1456. No one really knows how it came to be here. It’s not the oldest thing in St. James Cathedral (those might be the relics of St. Fortunata, from the fourth century), but it feels very old. Or rather, it feels timeless – pinioned on an alternate axis that plunges through the centuries, indifferent to time.
In drab and practical Seattle, on a cloudy late-autumn day, a thing like this can shine almost with a life of its own; it can make its surroundings look dim. One is tempted to worship it. But it helps to remember that when this altarpiece was made, before those fated ships sailed to the New World, before Martin Luther nailed the door, before the guillotines and gas chambers, splendor like this was taken for granted. There were many paintings more luxuriant than this. There were many that were larger and more beautiful. And all of them would have stood above altars adorned with offerings and crowned with song.
And then, on a Christmas Eve night, all of it – song, scent, image, space – would have reached a pitch that tipped into silence. And dark mystery would have emerged, all the deeper because of the contrast.
And the angels would have said, to each attending heart:
Do not linger too long on the silk and brocade;
Do not wonder too long at the marble so pure.
Do not linger too long:
It’s only a lure!
Instead be drawn upward:
And let the Fisherman
Take out the hook.
Be with me.