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Vanishing saints and unholy mysteries

16/03/2009
Ste Réparate Nice

Saint Reparata's Cathedral, Nice, from Place Rosetti (image from Commons Wiki)

Cathedrals, Gothic and Romanesque – they’re my ‘thing’. ‘Cathedrals I have known’: a title quirky enough to work, possibly – but, more probably, not! Anyway, I could write a book about them; probably would; but definitely shouldn’t (other people have already done so, and excellently well; others will follow – and undoubtedly do an even better job, thereby saving me the bother. See? I am not entirely stupid).
Anyway, whenever I move – which is frequently – I make sure to check out Himself’s nearest Manor. These buildings were the multi-media entertainment centres of their time. They still are, if you take the time to get to know them. Time well-spent, for the rewards are greater than any essentially ephemeral film, show or the latest summertime hit sounds. Timelessness, in fact, is the gift of these stone structures.
And the stone is powerful, for the acoustic is similarly timeless. I heard the composer John Cage explain this in a radio interview. He put it rather poetically. When you listen to music in a cathedral, said Cage, you are listening to the building itself. A cousin – himself a composer – explained that this is because of the extraordinary acoustic to be found in such buildings. Despite the truth and clarity of his technical disquisiton, I prefer to think of the those lovingly-worked, centuries old stones actually … singing.
Arriving where I am now, one of the first places I visited was the cathedral. The local one is dedicated to Saint Reparata, an almost indestructible 12 year old virgin, subjected to suitably exemplary gruesome martyrdom. I shall not offend your delicate sensibilities by relating just how – although those in charge of her gaff have no such qualms, judging by the horrifically-detailed painting above her shrine. A thoroughly repellent bit of work. And in all respects. Not least, it isn’t even a decent painting: dull in colour, poor in composition and inept in execution, it is clearly the product of a person or persons resignedly going through the boring – and boringly academic -motions. But at least they’d have been reasonably well paid.
The painting can easily be ignored, however. Or could. For the tiny chapel contains a lifesize statue of the Saint, depicting her in that pinkly, plumply glowing health favoured by artists of the period (mid-late 18th cent) all over Europe. Red-haired Reparata looks a bit older than her supposed age; but she’s from an age – ending only recently in the West – when childhood was barely acknowledged and puberty let alone adolescence marked an abrupt launch into adulthood, marriage and family. She doesn’t look too cheerful, mind – her head slightly cocked as if listening out for danger (the tramp of cleated sandals worn by the soldiers on their way to arrest her), her arms extended, her tiny, baby-like hands fluttering in mid-air. She knows what’s coming. And, it must be said, she’s not exactly up for it. Who would be?
Brutal, brutish fate … shudder at it, and pass on – quickly.
But somehow she offers welcome. And not only, for me, because her jour de fete coincides with my birthday. I like to drop in there from time to time, say “bonjour” and tell her my troubles, asking if she could put in a word for me with The Management. (Somebody darn well should; mind you, they must be pretty busy when you come to think of it.)
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that after enduring what the poor kid went through she’d have earned the right to be left alone in peace? But, no. Saint Reparata has disappeared. Without warning. Just before Christmas, too.
The cathedral is undergoing refurbishment, and the aisle where she resided was blocked off. I assumed she was behind the barriers still. To my horror, when some of the barriers were removed, I saw that she was no longer there.
Surely she’d been removed for her annual scale and polish – or whatever it is you do to conserve the nearly-2000 year old these days. That would explain her absence, wouldn’t it?
Well, it might. Only she’s still not there. That’s three months since she was taken away. I know French trades- and craftsmen – the generally well-respected artisanat – like to take their time in completing tasks. The better to do a really good job, they might say. But all the same: three whole months without Reparata? This is getting a bit much, frankly. Three months is a long enough gap for someone to start thinking she’s gone for good. I’m worried, and entertaining the possibility that red-haired Reparata will never again stand, fearful and with hands fluttering in time with her heart, resonating down the years while she stands in her rightful place.
If she actually existed, that is. You never know with these characters, do you? While you do know, as you must, all about propaganda. Perhaps the latest Pope is going for a hat-trick? After all the boss Catholic has, and in short order: upset gays (restricting himself to men, presumably because – like Queen Victoria – he hasn’t heard of gay women), anathematised mother and daughter, where the child (of less than Reparata’s age) pregnant as a result of rape had a termination – and other, equally outrageous pronouncements. So I wouldn’t put it past il Papa to do the dastardly thing and demote this lass from her heavenly position.
Really! Is nothing sacred? If the real Reparata – if real she was – were here now, what on earth would she make of it all?
We’ll never know. But in the meantime the Nicois – whose patron saint she is – deserve better. I am watching the space left by Reparata’s removal carefully. Very carefully. If she isn’t restored, in full glory, soon – I might have to follow time-honoured Gallic tradition and take to the streets, waving a banner and surrounded by noisy citoyens doing likewise.
And that blasted painting – it’s truly awful. Really it is. Either it goes or I do.

Anyone want to sign my petition?

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