For decades, and perhaps as many as 50 years, Seattle’s St. James Cathedral hid a secret.
Carefully tucked away in the basement out of sight was a painting of Mary, the Infant Jesus and six saints.
But it wasn’t just any old piece of artwork. When the painting was discovered in the 1950s, it appeared curiously old, being painted on canvas affixed to wooden panels. As it turned out, the painting was created by Florentine artist Neri di Bicci in 1456.
The Renaissance piece is called Mary and Child With Six Saints, a title that was commonly used for commissioned paintings of that era. The person ordering such a painting was allowed to pick out the six saints he wished to have depicted in the artwork. The client behind this painting selected Sts. Luke, Bartholomew, Lawrence, John the Baptist, Martin of Tours and Sebastian.
In 2005, the aged, fraying painting was restored by experts at the Seattle Art Museum. Today, it hangs on the north wall of the cathedral chapel and is considered the parish’s greatest treasure. No one has ever discovered who placed the painting in the church’s basement, or when it was hidden there.
Church on a Hill
Seattle’s St. James Cathedral was dedicated in 1907. Perched on a prominent rise in the city’s First Hill neighborhood — Seattle is built on nine hills — it once towered impressively over the landscape. Today, skyscrapers and other high-rise buildings crowd in around St. James, hiding its splendor. To help it once again stand out, the parish installed lighting that highlights its towers each evening.
Much as the cathedral is rather hidden in the growing, bustling city, nothing in its interior immediately catches your eye when you first step inside. A small square altar is placed in the center, and the requisite stained-glass windows line the sides, as do various pieces of statuary.
But don’t let its rather understated interior disappoint. There are plenty of gems here, once one takes a closer look.
Like the Shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary, creatively lit by dozens of tall, thin beeswax candles affixed to the chapel’s three walls. The flickering candlelight warms the small chapel’s earthy tones, creating an inviting, peaceful space for worship. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the favorite spots for parishioners and visitors alike.
On the opposite side of the cathedral, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel houses the tabernacle, an arresting swirling, bronze sculpture meant to evoke the burning bush where Moses encountered God. One room over, in the cathedral’s main chapel, Our Lady of Seattle placidly watches over visitors. The statue was created in Italy in the 19th century, traveling by boat in the early 1870s to its destination: Our Lady of Good Help, the area’s pioneer church. The statue, believed to be the first image of Mary publicly venerated in Seattle, was gifted to the cathedral after its construction.
Disasters and Icons
Perhaps one of the more interesting stories about Seattle’s cathedral, outside of its mysteriously hidden Renaissance painting, occurred just nine years after its construction, when a major snowstorm hit, dumping two feet of heavy snow onto the city. St. James’ dome wasn’t built to handle the weight, snow being a rarity in the city, and the dome crashed 80 feet to the floor below, shattering every window in the cathedral. Mercifully, the cathedral was empty. And, just as mercifully, the parish hadn’t yet installed stained-glass windows.
The cathedral’s parishioners weren’t able to pay for the dome’s reconstruction, so a plain roof replaced the elegant dome. Years later, during a 1994 renovation necessitated after an arsonist set a fire inside the building, a skylight was installed where the dome had been. Today, large, spider-like cracks in the floor under the skylight are the only scars that remain from the dome’s monumental collapse, along with a copy of an old newspaper article and photo describing the disaster.
But disasters certainly don’t define St. James. In fact, the cathedral is home to another artistic gem — or, more accurately, gems, in the form of an impressive collection of icons, written by cathedral iconographer Joan Brand-Landkamer. Numbering in the dozens, they cover the church’s central mysteries of faith and Church feasts. If you’re able to attend Sunday Mass when you’re in town, you’ll see one of these icons carried in procession and placed on display for viewing.
Melanie Radzicki McManus writes from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
If You Go
St. James, 804 9th Ave., offers tours Wednesdays at 1pm. Groups of four or more can make arrangements for a private tour by calling Corinna Laughlin at (206) 264-2086. The cathedral is open for prayer from 7:30am-6pm, Monday through Saturday, and 7am-7pm, Sundays. Sunday Mass is held at 5:30pm Saturday (vigil) and 8am, 10am, noon and 5:30pm Sundays.
For more information, visit StJames-Cathedral.org or call (206) 622-3559.