Initially the fragments were discovered by Helena,
Mother of the emperor Constantine,
On a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the year 327.
Where precisely, or in what circumstances, nobody agrees.
Stolen by the Persians in 614,
They were recovered intact by Heraclius,
Emperor of the East, in 628.
But because the blood of Jesus had rendered the wood
Imperishable, no matter
How many pieces were removed,
Subsequently the fragments were divided into increasingly smaller fragments,
Each of them, because more easily concealed,
More valuable than the last.
Smuggled out of Jerusalem by two friars,
Entrusted to the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1366,
Two such splinters were delivered nel palmo,
In the palm of the hand,
To the guardian of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista,
One of the six Venetian scuole or guilds.
There, in the Oratorio della Croce,
You’ll find the cross-shaped reliquary in which the splinters,
Arranged to mimic
A cross, are encased in rock crystal.
You won’t find the cycle of narrative paintings
Commemorating their acquisition, because in 1806, after dissolving the scuole,
Napoleon removed the paintings from the walls.
Gentile Bellini, Carpaccio, Perugino—
Each depicts the reliquary.
Each depicts a miracle,
Though in Bellini’s Miracle of the Merchant Jacopo de Salis
The miracle is hard to find.
Have you ever felt
But not alone?
Your body in an instant
Not your own
But someone else?
Jacopo, robed in red,
The only person
Kneeling in a sea of white-cowled celebrants
Carrying the cross to which he prays,
Is someone else.
His son is dying,
It’s the feast of San Marco,
The presentation of the true cross, April 25th, 1443—
To see the Miracle of the Merchant Jacopo de Salis properly,
As for thirty years I did not, remember that in the Scuola
It was hung above your head;
In the Academia you’ll need to kneel.
To see the reliquary of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista,
Start in the southwest corner of the Campo San Giacomo,
The one with the sycamores you like.
Cross the bridge, turn left, then right, then left again—
The first time I ever saw Venice
I loved you. The second time
You loved me, too.
The fifteenth I was sick,
The sixteenth well—
Somewhere, every day, a son gets out of bed.
There are faster ways to get there, simpler ways,
But I like this way best.
JAMES LONGENBACH’s most recent books are Earthling and How Poems Get Made, both published by W.W. Norton.
image: Gentile Bellini, Procession in St. Mark’s Square (detail), 1496