Santa Maria della Scala

by Sue Hubbard


It’s Easter and the museum is empty. Nothing but relics

and saints’ bones – a thumb, a foreskin – it’s impossible to tell,

in their ornate reliquaries, what things are – and holy of holies,

a sacred nail. There’s also a gilded gospel from Constantinople

enamelled in cobalt blue. Tiny Byzantine figures: cobblers,

farriers, bakers and monks stuck forever In the 11th century.

Once this maze of crypts housed weary pilgrims and the sick.

Wet nurses suckled abandoned infants for a fee.

Sorore, the shoemaker-founder, so my guidebook tells me,

died back in 898. Being here, certainly, gives you time

to contemplate the brevity of it all. To wonder where

this strip of cloth, a fragment of the Virgin’s belt, has been

these many years, and whether all truth contains

a contradiction – so even though I know there’s

no heaven, if I stand here long enough,

I’ll, maybe, learn the art of prayer.