At Pentecost last year I found myself at the Marina Riviera, a small hotel in Amalfi, an hour south of Naples in southern Italy, relaxing after an arduous press trip (honestly).
I looked out to sea during that afternoon and thought I was seeing a vision or having a hallucination.
Coming toward me, far out to sea, was a large cross. It was being carried, I later saw, by a small boat, bouncing over the Mediterranean, heading for port. As it drew near the landing jetty I ran down the hill toward the beach and found that a crowd of people had preceded me. It was the Pentecost celebration along the Amalfi coast, and many towns had gathered to welcome the cross to their shore. It seems that different coastal towns “host” the cross each year.
After landing on the beach, the cross was carried on the shoulders of local residents up into town and up the steep staircase of Amalfi's cathedral.
Soon the large church was filled with people singing “Gloria a te, Cristo Gesu.” There was true Christian joy there.
I knew I was blessed indeed to be part of it.
Amalfi lies at the foot of a tall cliff, in a valley along the coast far south of Rome and south of Naples.
The coast to which it gives its name, the Amalfi Coast, is without a doubt among the most beautiful seacoasts in the world. I had begun to stop there 20 years ago in my travels and fell under its spell as I developed some lifelong friendships.
The first of four Sea Republics (along with Pisa, Genoa and Venice) that commercially and militarily dominated the Mediterranean until the discovery of America in 1492, Amalfi, with the others, lost its power when greater wealth was seen to lie westward.
These coastal republics have an Eastern look in their cathedrals and seem to belong to the seagoing world more than to their neighboring inland cities.
Amalfi is now a summer place where tourists jam the streets and coastal road from Easter till the end of September.
The focal point of many Amalfi tours is its cathedral, dedicated to St. Andrew, the Apostle whose bones are buried here, and legend says his bones give off a special ointment once a year. The first work on the cathedral began during the ninth century; it was subsequently enlarged in an Arab-Norman style that had developed from the time of the Crusaders. Normans and Arabs had both been here, and the Normans set up a kingdom after returning from the crusades of the 11th century, full of Eastern ideas. As the years passed, the facade and the 62 steps that precede it were modified. The church soon became a merry blend of styles.
The most beautiful part of the church, the Cloisters of Paradise, is Moorish in design with elegant interlaced arches stretching above slender columns. Fragments of the centuries are displayed beneath tall palm trees.
The campanile (bell tower) dates from the 12th century. Like many churches along the coast, the cathedral is faced with brightly colored majolica, which makes it seem radiant even on the gloomiest winter days.
Even the crypt is a merry place, which may make St. Andrew happy.
Rich marble pilasters and a large statue of him proclaim his august presence.
The perfume his bones give off, called the Manna of St. Andrew, is exuded during the last week of November, in time for his feast day on Nov. 30.
I looked him up later in the Golden Legend of Voragine (13th century), where I found: “It is said that manna in the form of flour and a scented oil used to issue from the tomb of St. Andrew [in Greece], and by that people could foretell the fruitfulness of the coming year; for if the oil flowed abundantly, it was a sign that the earth would be fruitful.”
Andrew, patron of sailors, brother of St. Peter, was a native of Bethsaida in Galilee. After the dispersion of the Apostles he preached the Gospel in the Eastern Mediterranean, in Greece, Turkey, perhaps even Russia, as he is that country's patron saint. A less reliable tradition has it that he went to Scotland; he is the Scots’ patron as well.
Martyred in Patras, Greece, he was crucified on a cross in the shape of an X.
A statue of the saint on that cross adorns a fountain in front of the cathedral, not at all a martyr's scene despite the cross.
It seems the saint's body was transported to Constantinople in 357 and deposited in the church of Constantine there. In 1270 his relics were brought to Italy and left in Amalfi.
I remember a childhood song of St. Andrew that comes back to me when I visit his final resting place, which goes something like this: “As of old, St. Andrew heard him, by the Galilean lake; Turned from home and toil and kindred, leaving all for his dear sake.”
Amalfi is, alas, more commercial than spiritual these days, and stores selling lemon liqueur almost consume the main street. It is even difficult to enter the cathedral in season without paying a fee for a tour. (Does Andrew know this?) However, if you should be there before the summer crowds appear, you might climb the stairs and pay your respects to this great fisher of men.
Barbara Coeyman Hults is based in New York City.