The Mystery of Holy Incorruption

The Incorruptibles

The bodies of many medieval Catholic saints and martyrs have resisted decay for centuries— just the sort of mystery that begs for scientific inquiry By Heather Pringle Photography by Bastienne Schmidt

Adapted from the new book The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead by Heather Pringle, copyright 2001

Whole and astonishingly intact 693 years after her death, the hands of Saint Clare of Montefalco pose a difficult question for researchers. Is her eerie preservation due to divine intervention, human embalmers, or the powers of nature?

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, awaiting canonization.

Saintly Scrutiny

Under science's bright gaze (right), Italian pathologist Gino Fornaciari and his team pore over the body of the Blessed Diana Giuntini in an autopsy room in Pisa. The team's radiographic and endoscopic examination of Saint Zita, a servant in a 13th-century household (bottom row), revealed a host of occupational ills and a coin in her mouth but no sign of artificial mummification.

Photographs, left to right: Bastienne Schmidt; bottom (2), Courtesy of Dr. Gino Fornaciari; top, Courtesy of Heather Pringle

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 Fulcheri.

Regally entombed in a gold and glass reliquary in Lucca, Saint Zita is said to have turned water into wine for a thirsty pilgrim. 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," says Fulcheri.

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.

Saint Margaret of Cortona, patron saint of reformed prostitutes, was so beloved by her contemporaries that they arranged for her mummification in 1297. 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 mummified Saint Clare of Montefalco, a 13th-century mystic, rests in the Church of the Holy Cross in Montefalco, Italy.

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.

Italy's Church Mummies: Authorities have recovered 27 mummies of clerics and prominent citizens from burial vaults 1 to 10 beneath the 14th-century cathedral of Venzone. Tombs 11 to 17 yielded only skeletons. What accounts for the disparity? Differing microenvironments, according to a study by Arthur Aufderheide, a pathologist at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, and colleague Mary Aufderheide. Venzone lies atop limestone bedrock. Groundwater in such regions is usually alkaline, an environment hostile to putrefaction. During floods, alkaline waters likely seeped through dirt floors in tombs 1 to 10, preserving the cadavers. Vaults 11 to 17 had sealed stone floors. Moreover, floodwaters in tombs 1 to 10 drained quickly through the porous limestone. Coffin wood from those vaults possessed just 7 percent water. In such aridity, water-soaked humans would have dried rapidly into mummies.
— H.P.

"Paleo-Images of Mummy A4, the Infant Mummy, and Other Bodies from the Basilica of St. Francesco in Arezzo," by Gaspare Baggieri, The Paleopathology Newsletter, No. 113, March 2001. Order copies at

Gino Fornaciari's group at the University of Pisa has a Web page at paleopathology/paleopathology.html.

Find out more about Heather Pringle's new book "The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession and the Everlasting Dead" at theia/2001ss/ mummycongress.htm

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DISCOVER Vol. 22 No. 6 (June 2001)
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