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Hanging with the Dead: Relics and Incorruptibles

One of the more fascinating and dare I say haunting encounters one has while traveling is the relics and incorruptible bodies found in churches throughout the world. Some are hard to find, such as the incorruptible body of St. Antoninus of Florence. He’s in the far back corner of the Church of San Marco, which is not found in many guidebooks. Others are prominently displayed, like St. John Vianney. With his head tilted slightly as if waiting to hear a confession, he’s above the main altar in the Sanctuaire d’Ars, in Ars, France.

As many are celebrating Halloween and we are approaching All Saints Day, I would like to present to you some of the strangest relics and incorruptible bodies one can find. I mean, really, why pay to be chased around a haunted house by some guy wielding a chainsaw when you can visit these places that are both peculiar and holy?

One of most curious examples of the dead on display is in the Capuchin Crypt of Santa Maria dell’Immacolata Concezione in Rome. The crypt contains six chapels, five of which are decorated in the bones of the deceased friars. And by decorated I do not mean a few bones placed in reliquaries. No, they went all out. Just look at the names of these chapels: Crypt of the Skulls, Crypt of the Pelvises, Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones, and the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. The bones of over 4000 monks who died between 1528 and 1870 artistically line the walls and ceilings. They have chandeliers made of bones, arches, floral arrangements and even a clock, all made from bones. Some of the monks are still intact. These are in various poses. Some resting in niches, some mounted on the wall and a few are hanging from the ceiling.

Capuchin Crypt
While some, perhaps most, may find this display macabre, the message is simple, if a little eerie: Noi eravamo quello che voi siete, e quello che noi siamo voi sarete. That is, “We were what you are; and what we are, you will be.”

Let’s move from one of the most curious to one of the most mysterious: St. Rita of Cascia, patron saint of lost causes. A wife, a mother, a widow and a nun, she lived a devout life and is one of our incorruptible saints.

An incorruptible is one who is unpreserved, be it deliberate, accidental or natural, and has not shown the decay typical of someone who has died. In most all cases not only are the incorruptibles, well, incorrupt, but they are also still quite flexible and moist.

Now St. Rita being an incorruptible is not scary; it’s amazing! Of course, being face to face with someone who has been dead for over 500 years can make even the most devout feel a bit uneasy. The spookiness with St. Rita comes from a few events that have taken place after she died. Her body rests in a glass sarcophagus located about eye level to most visitors. For hundreds of years pilgrims have come to pray at her tomb. On several occasions there are reported cases of St. Rita opening her eyes, changing position, and even elevating. All of these events were recorded by multiple eyewitnesses. Imagine praying at her tomb, looking up and seeing her open eyes looking back at you.

Saint Rita
St. Rita’s body is, for the most part, whole. Let’s visit another saint who’s body is not, Saint Catherine of Siena.

Saint Catherine died in Rome and was buried just outside of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Knowing how much it would please the people of Siena to have the remains of their great fellow citizen among them, her confessor sent her head to Siena. Don’t worry, it’s been said that her tomb was not very tightly sealed and her body was exposed to dampness, so she was not forcefully decapitated. Her head just popped right off. The Church of San Domenico in Siena has her head as well as one of her fingers. Other parts of her can be found in Venice and England.

The head of Saint Catherine

When one thinks relic, often one thinks of a piece of cloth, hair, perhaps a piece of skin, or even a small bone But, throughout the world, Europe in particular, it’s not hard to find heads, hands, arms, feet, fingers, shoulder blades, brains even hearts of our holy men and women.

And for me that beats a haunted house any day. Not only can I get the chilling feeling one gets in the presence of the dead, but I also feel a sense of peace. For being with these saints I am truly in the presence of holiness.

Here are a few more freakishly Catholic images…

Saint John Vianney

Saint Antoninus of Florence

The feet of Saint Lucy

Santa Vittoria

Saint Vincent de Paul

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