Oct 3, 2005

Saints in a museum

Up the long low steps, Rocky’s steps where the tourists still run and hum his theme in their heads, up the marble block stairs that will later serve as seats for cummerbund jazz, rising over Rivera’s flat faced peasants armed with sombreros and horses, around and past the tapestries through the arch on the left, I come. Here again. I come to the museum's icons: Christ carved crucified and suspended from the ceiling, Satan with stonewhiskers cast beneath St. Michael’s feet, a rock cloister rebuilt here around the shush of the penny-filled fountain of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa.

Some art teacher stands before Mary and murmurs, reciting a history of symbolisms. The rooms are temperature controlled and dehumidified and the guards sit sleepy, checking their watches and watching the city out the windows. The place is quiet, a sanctuary, but always a museum and never a church. Maybe it’s the light softening the shadows around the framed saints, or the fact they’re arranged in clustered symmetries. Increasingly, that bothers me. These icons don’t point out anywhere. They stand all in a circle, these saints, idle.

Here Benedict and Scholastica face each other, across an aisle, hollow reliquary busts with heavy lidded eyes. The paint is worn a little thin, with a thick grain raised and showing through. They’re about waist high, the founder of Western Monasticism and his sister the nun, wooden heads with little windows. Stooping down you can look through the windows, the glass now clouded and dusty, to where the relics once were. Pray and work, Benedict said, that in all God may be glorified. But here they face each other, here Benedict’s sign refers to Scholastica, Scholastica’s to Benedict, and as I read in this circle I begin to mutter, around and around, muttering into empty windows.