Andrew never went to church without a camera. He was an avid art history fan, and when in Rome he scoured as many churches as he could find for art treasures – a Caravaggio! A Raphael! – or for beautiful frescoes or sculptures – the Pieta! – or apses, altars or naves that had hosted famous moments – Tosca in Sant’Andrea delle Valle! Nothing was sacred to him unless it added to his personal pantheon of treasures found: the great lapis lazuli globe over Sant’Ignatio’s tomb in the Gesù church, the relics of Santa Cecilia in her basilica in Trastevere, Bellini’s giggle-inducing sculpture of Santa Teresa’s ecstasy.“Going to church again?” his wife Jane would ask, laughing, as he set out on another sight-seeing weekend, his trusty Canon slung around his neck.
“You may mock, Jane, but I’m amassing one of the greatest collections of church photographs in the history of the Lower Illmington Photography Club,” replied Andrew.
“But you did all those mosques last year, at least the ones they’d let you in to when we went to Istanbul. Now we’re in the glorious Eternal City and all you want to do is hang around in church. I want to eat pasta!” said Jane.
“Ok, ok, let me just check out the ceilings in Sant’Ignatio – they’re supposed to be incredible – and then we’ll go out for a pasta dinner. With Italian red, I promise.”
Later in the week Andrew and Jane continued their tour of Italy. They drove through Tuscany and into Umbria, the heart of la vera Italia. Andrew was on the trail of a basilica he’d read about, where the immaculate Santa Rita lay. It was a great pilgrimage site, apparently. He wanted some pictures for his collection.
They parked the car on the edge of the old village and strolled into the piazza. “How about a coffee?” suggested Jane. “No time,” said Andrew. “The church closes at four.” Jane grumbled as they waddled slowly up the steep steps to the church of Santa Rita. Neither of them was young and spry any more, and neither was particularly slim. Andrew’s Canon bumped against his belly as they puffed up, past the religious souvenir shops selling artificial roses and gift bee brooches.
“Roses and bees?” said Jane. “What’s this all about?”
Andrew was too breathless, and too intent on his goal – he had the four pm deadline in mind – to answer. They reached the Basilica eventually and filed in amongst a crowd of pilgrims. Inside, standing in the nave, both gawped in amazement. “How pretty!” said Jane, who had no eye. “How ugly!” said Andrew, and gave her a short but pithy lecture on the shortcomings of the twentieth century, slap-dash, garish frescoes decorating the relatively new church. Jane got the sniffs and left to find coffee – “I’ll meet you in the square.”
Andrew took a couple of photos, though he didn’t plan on staying for long in the disappointing modern church. But he was drawn by the quiet crowd around the side chapel where Santa Rita herself lay, clad in black and white Dominican robes, surrounded by the gifts of grateful supplicants. “The Patron Saint of Lost Causes”, Andrew read on a small explanatory sign. He sat for a moment in a pew and thought about that. He took his Canon from around his neck, switched it off, and closed his eyes.