Food for Thought:
Monday, July 2, 2001
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NHNE: Food for Thought: The Incorruptibles
Monday, July 2, 2001
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By Heather Pringle
Discover Magazine, Vol. 22 No. 6, June 2001
The bodies of many medieval Catholic saints and martyrs have resisted
decay for centuries -- just the sort of mystery that begs for scientific
inquiry. Adapted from the new book: "The Mummy Congress: Science,
Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead" by Heather Pringle:
Inside a side chapel at the cathedral of San Frediano in Lucca, Italy,
bouquets of lilies and orchids perfume the air with the sweet fragrance
of sanctity. A respectful hush descends over the curious and faithful
alike as they gaze up at a reliquary of gold and glass. Lying on a bed
of brocade is one of Roman Catholics' most beloved icons, Saint Zita.
Born in 1218 in the village of Monte Sagrati, Zita led a life of singular
virtue. Raised in abject poverty, she was sent out to work as a child
in the home of a wealthy merchant in nearby Lucca, where her kindnesses
were legion. She gave up her bed to homeless women and dispensed her
own meals to the poor. When she died at around the age of 60, her body
was laid to rest in a burial vault in San Frediano. Memories of her
holiness remained vivid, however, and people pressed the Church to declare
her a saint. When ecclesiastical officials exhumed the humble servant
nearly 300 years after her death, one of the miraculous signs of sainthood
was immediately apparent: Zita was whole and intact, her body resistant
to the decay reserved for ordinary humans. And so she has remained through
another 400 and more years. Crowned with a ring of dried pink roses
and wearing a gown of soft green velvet, she lies on her bier virtually
untouched by time. Her gaunt face is dark but smooth. Her hands are
soft and supple looking. Her lustrous nails gleam.
Saint Zita is one of the Incorruptibles -- the name given by medieval
Catholic clergy to the astonishingly preserved bodies of saints, martyrs,
and beati, the blesseds on the road to canonization. Just over half
of the 100 or so Incorruptibles that are known to exist lie in reliquaries
in Italy. The rest are scattered around the world -- in France, Spain,
Poland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, India, Peru, and Lebanon. Through
the centuries, the faithful have revered these bodies as signs of divine
intervention, unquestionable proof that they were God's holy servants
in life. The devout believe the Incorruptibles possess miraculous healing
powers. When Saint Zita was exhumed, she reputedly returned sight to
the blind and fertility to the sterile.
Over the last 15 years, however, a new view of the Incorruptibles has
begun to emerge. At the Vatican's request, Italian pathologists, chemists,
and radiologists have been poring over the bodies of the ancient men
and women interred in church reliquaries. Charged with gleaning new
information about the lives of the saints and assisting in the conservation
of sacred remains, they have also brought science to the altars of Europe's
cathedrals. Already, they have examined more than two dozen saints and
beati, shedding light on the mystery of their preservation. While some
saints were clearly mummified by their devout followers, others were
protected from decay by environmental conditions, raising new questions
about incorruptibility. "What is a miracle?" asks Ezio Fulcheri,
a pathologist at the University of Genoa and one of the leading researchers
on the Incorruptibles. "It's something unexplainable, a special
event that may occur in different ways." The causes may seem mysterious
"but don't exclude [rare] natural processes that are different
from the normal course of things."
Fulcheri's experience with the Incorruptibles began in 1986 with a
strange, irresistible request from Monsignor Gianfranco Nolli, the then
inspector emeritus of the Vatican's Egyptian Museum and a consultant
to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The august body, composed
of nearly two dozen cardinals, archbishops, and bishops assisted by
a small core of ecclesiastical investigators and scientific consultants,
works out of a brick and stone building near Saint Peter's Square. Its
chief duty is to examine the lives, writings, and purported miracles
of people of extraordinary holiness, referring those it deems most worthy
of recognition as saints, blesseds, and martyrs to the Pope for his
final decision. Nolli, an expert on Egyptian mummification, had been
given an unusual project by the Congregation: Preserve the body of dissident
Ukrainian cardinal Josef Slipyj, a strong candidate for canonization
who had died two years earlier. The Church did not want Ukrainians to
forget its opposition to the Communists: Slipyj would help them remember.
Fulcheri joined Nolli and a team of prominent Italian scientists in
the chill underground crypt of Saint Sophia in Rome where Slipyj was
buried. There, they carefully lifted the prelate's body from his coffin.
The cadaver was still intact, but the flesh had begun to darken with
decay. The team first removed the brain and viscera and cleansed the
cardinal's internal cavities. Then to switch off enzymatic decay, they
immersed the body in a chemical bath. Over the next four months, the
team bathed the cardinal in a series of solutions. At the end of a year,
Fulcheri collected tissue samples. Slipping these under the microscope,
he compared them to those taken before the mummification began. The
processes of cellular decay had slowed to a virtual standstill. Grateful
for the news, the Vatican flew Slipyj's mummified body to the capital
of the western Ukraine, Lviv, where it was buried in a cathedral crypt,
The 20th-century Catholic Church had not hesitated in calling on science
for help in preserving a future saint. That sparked Fulcheri to wonder
whether it had made similar appeals in ages past. The popular European
and North American tradition of embalming had developed late. It was
not until the 17th century that anatomists and chemists began experimentally
injecting substances as diverse as wine, turpentine, alcohol, vermilion,
lavender, and rosemary into the arteries of animal and human cadavers.
In an era long before such chemical preservation, had science been of
any help to the Church?
Fulcheri came across his first clues when Nolli called on his help
once again, this time with an official examination of an important 13th-century
Tuscan saint, Margaret of Cortona. According to hagiographies, Margaret,
the daughter of a simple farmer, had attracted the eye of a wealthy
young man. Living openly as his mistress, she flaunted his finery and
bore him a son, scandalizing the countryside. After nine years, however,
her lover suddenly went missing and she discovered his body in a shallow
grave. Regarding this as a sign from God, she asked public pardon, then
devoted her life to good works. In 1279, when the army of Charles of
Anjou threatened to lay waste to Cortona, the citizens appealed to her
to pray for their deliverance. Margaret reassured them that their city
was in no danger, and soon after Charles signed an armistice. After
her death in 1297, Margaret's remains resisted decay. Her body, which
lies in a magnificent Gothic tomb in the cathedral of Cortona, "is
light in color and dry, but completely whole," notes Joan Carroll
Cruz in The Incorruptibles, a survey of saintly remains published in
1977. "Even the eyes are full and all the nails of the feet and
hands are still in place."
In Cortona, Fulcheri joined the other examiners, taking the oath required
of all participating at such proceedings: He vowed to respect the saint's
remains, to take nothing, and to tell the truth about his findings.
Then he and his colleagues broke the reliquary seals and carried the
saint's body to a private area in the cathedral. As Fulcheri gently
lifted the hem of her dress up over her legs, all those assembled began
to murmur. Several long incisions streaked along her thighs; other,
deeper cuts ran along her abdomen and chest. Clearly made after death,
they had been sewn shut with a whipstitch in coarse black thread. Saint
Margaret had been artificially mummified.
Poring over historical and ecclesiastical documents, Fulcheri made
a surprising discovery: "The people [of Cortona] asked the Church
to embalm her," he says. According to the records, they made this
request very publicly. But over the centuries that fact had been lost.
People assumed, given the state of her body, that she had been preserved
by an act of God. And earlier canonical recognitions performed on her
body had done little to set the record straight. The examiners had detected
the fragrance of unguents and spices about her, but they had been too
embarrassed to give her a full physical examination. "They had
drawn back her vest, but just a little to be modest," observes
Those who preserved Saint Margaret had done so remarkably thoroughly,
excising her internal organs and drenching her skin in fragrant lotions.
Their handiwork reminded Fulcheri of the techniques employed by ancient
Egyptian embalmers. Mulling this over, the pathologist wondered whether
the resemblances were merely coincidental or whether at some point in
the distant past, the Catholic Church had borrowed from the Egyptian
tradition of mummification. The Bible, after all, had established an
important precedent. In the Old Testament, Joseph, the church patriarch
who was sold into slavery in Egypt as a youth and rose to become the
governor of Egypt, had commanded his servants to embalm the body of
his father. Elements of this practice had likely lingered in Palestine
for more than a millennium. The New Testament related how mourners at
the holy sepulchre anointed the body of Christ with natural preservatives
made of plants. Indeed, Nicodemus had arrived at the tomb carrying a
hundred-pound weight of myrrh, the resin of choice of Egyptian embalmers,
and aloes, an antibacterial residue from the various species of aloe
that grow in southern and eastern Africa. "Then took they the body
of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner
of the Jews is to bury," noted the Gospel of John.
Imbued by faith, the early Christian fathers were determined to follow
the example. "If Christ, as the head of the church, was oiled and
embalmed," says Fulcheri, "they thought that important people
and holy people should be oiled and embalmed too." So early Christians
began anointing the bodies of the holy with natural preservatives and
wrapping them in linen, simple acts that greatly aided the mummification
of many saints. When the first Christian missionaries journeyed to Rome,
they brought these customs with them, and the use of such preservatives
soon became established in Europe. According to historical records,
4th-century Christians in Umbria entombed the body of Saint Emiliano
with "aromatic resins and precious perfumes and white linens,"
and Christians continued anointing their saints and martyrs with such
substances for more than another millennium. In 1697, for example, an
Italian surgeon left a list of 27 powdered herbs and drugs that he had
employed to preserve the body of Saint Gregorio Barbarigo. Myrrh, aloes,
and frankincense, another favored Egyptian resin, headed the list. "So
the ideas from Egypt were transferred to Palestine and then to Europe,"
Still, the embalmers of Margaret of Cortona had gone far beyond the
traditional anointing of the holy by carving into her sacred flesh.
The church records offered no explanation for such drastic actions,
so Fulcheri began hunting elsewhere for clues, searching to see if he
could find other similarly mummified saints in Italy. His research has
turned up five other similar cases -- Saint Clare of Montefalco, Blessed
Margaret of Metola, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Bernardine of Siena,
and Saint Rita of Cascia. All had resided in the Italian provinces of
Umbria and Tuscany. All had lived within a relatively short period of
time, from 1297 to 1447. And all were mystics of a type fashionable
in northern Italy during the 14th and early 15th centuries. Their followers
had been determined to preserve their bodies, but as Fulcheri could
see from the records, a simple anointing wouldn't have served their
purposes. Some mourners had wanted to remove the internal organs for
saintly relics to be sent to churches elsewhere. Others wanted to search
the organs themselves for distinguishing marks. Saint Clare of Montefalco,
for example, had once told her followers: "If you seek the cross
of Christ, take my heart; there you will find the suffering Lord."
The nuns who had known her so well during life took this remark literally.
After she died, they cut out her viscera and pored over it for signs
of divine grace. They extricated three gallstones, which they regarded
as symbols of the Holy Trinity, and inside her heart, they discerned
signs of cardiac disease affecting the saint's papillary muscles and
nearby valves and tendons. This abnormality, they concluded, resembled
the outstretched body of Christ on the cross.
Not all of the Incorruptibles, however, could be chalked up so neatly
to the work of surgeons. Some, such as Saint Zita, the wizened peasant
saint in the flower-scented cathedral in Lucca, revealed not a trace
of human intervention, as pathologist Gino Fornaciari of the University
of Pisa discovered during a Church-requested examination of her body.
A native of Tuscany, Fornaciari grew up hearing stories of Saint Zita.
As a mummy expert at the University of Pisa, he has examined the bodies
of eight Italian saints and beati, from the Blessed Diana Giuntini of
Santa Maria a Monte to the famous Saint Anthony of Padua.
Working in a small curtained-off area, the pathologist and his team
carefully inspected Saint Zita's body, then delicately threaded an endoscope
into her chest and abdominal cavities. The gentle saint, it transpired,
was no stranger to poor health. She was born with a congenital dislocation
of the tibia and suffered later from tuberculosis and lead poisoning,
a result, in all likelihood, of the lead she unwittingly ingested from
the glazes on household pots. In addition, she must have frequently
struggled for breath, thanks to anthracosis, a chronic disease of the
lungs probably caused by exposure to the soot in medieval lamps. These
maladies she stoically endured until she died. Still, Fornaciari could
detect no trace of unguents or resins or incisions on her cadaver. Saint
Zita was whole and complete, possessed of all her internal organs. "She
is a very beautiful mummy," says Fornaciari, "perhaps the
best mummy I know of among the saints."
It was clear that Saint Zita had escaped decay without any help from
her mourners. And so, too, had several other saints known to science,
including Saint Ubald of Gubbio, Blessed Margaret of Savoy, and Saint
Savina Petrilli. In reading of their cases, Fulcheri wondered whether
environmental conditions in Italy's churches had brought about the saints'
preservation, for many had been interred before canonization in burial
vaults beneath church floors. The peculiar location of these vaults
had been determined early in church history. During the first century
A.D., the Roman emperor Nero had found it politic to persecute Christians.
An extravagant and unpopular ruler, he had been accused of setting a
great fire in Rome to clear ground for a new palace. To deflect these
rumors, Nero pinned the blame on Christians. He ordered the arrest of
a great multitude of them and had them dragged to the Circo Vaticano.
There he had them set ablaze, torn apart by dogs, and hung from crucifixes.
When Nero had finally had his fill of this cruel sport, the victims'
families claimed the bodies, interring them near the circus or in the
underground tunnels of Rome's catacombs. Such persecutions continued
sporadically at the hands of other emperors until the Christian convert
Constantine finally assumed power in Rome in the early fourth century
A.D. and gave Christians freedom of worship. They retrieved their martyrs
and began reburying them in safer, more glorious tombs under the altars
of their new churches. In Rome, Constantine himself ordered the construction
of a magnificent new cathedral, the Basilica of Saint Peter, whose altar
capped the original tomb of the apostle, one of Nero's victims. And
from that time on, the relics of a martyr or saint were tucked beneath
the altar of every new Roman Catholic church that rose in Europe.
The new church architecture ushered in a new funerary fashion. Leading
citizens and pious Christians wanted to lie inside the church, as close
to the altar as possible. Church authorities buried them in vaults beneath
the floor. Carved out of the cool ground or lined with alkaline stone,
these vaults had both chemical and climatic environments conducive to
mummification. "The temperature in these crypts is quite low, and
there is little temperature difference between summer and winter,"
Fulcheri explains. Indeed, recent excavations in Arezzo have shown just
how chill such vaults were. While restoring the Basilica of St. Francis
in Arezzo in 1998, workmen uncovered burial vaults containing the mummies
of three wealthy citizens likely dating to the 17th and 18th centuries.
Studies of the bodies by a team of Italian researchers led by Gaspare
Baggieri, an expert in paleopathology at Italy's Ministry of Cultural
Resources and Activities in Rome, revealed that temperatures inside
the burial vault hovered at 58 degrees Fahrenheit -- a few degrees below
the threshold most favorable to bacterial growth.
By the time holy figures were exhumed during beatification or canonization
trials, the tombs' microclimate had sometimes desiccated their flesh,
turning it to the texture of old leather. And if there was any confusion
among officials about which body was the correct one, they picked the
best preserved, for incorruptibility was taken as a sign of holiness.
Ordinary Europeans had no idea that nature had such preservative power,
and at a time when nearly every villager or city dweller had seen rancid
corpses strewn along streets, an ancient preserved cadaver seemed miraculous.
In the face of science, the roman Catholic Church has now virtually
abandoned the notion of incorruptibility. It no longer accepts physical
preservation as one of the two miracles required before a saint can
be recognized by the Pope. Still, suppressing a sense of astonishment
is difficult in the presence of a saint's preserved body. It is an amazing
affirmation, a testimony to one person's significance in a universe
often stony with indifference. It seems to hold out hope that death
will not be the end of us, that there is some salvation from the final
annihilation that we fear awaits us all.
Complete article, including photographs and related websites:
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