Relics and Incorruptible Saints
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
It was a gruesome site: a woman’s partially decomposed head eerily lit behind a metal screen. Her name is Caterina Benincasa, better known as St. Catherine of Siena. Her head and thumb are in Siena, her foot is in Venice and her left hand and remainder of her body in Rome. How did her dismembered body end up in three different churches?
Above: Head of St. Catherine of Siena, Chapel of St. Catherine, San Domenico, Siena.
Below: Foot of St. Catherine of Siena, Santi Giovanni e Paolo (Saints John and Paul), Venice.
Inside the large church of San Domenico, Catherine’s head and thumb reside in a chapel frescoed with scenes from her life. A Dominican nun and 25th child of the Sienese Benincasa family, Catherine was known for her visions and spiritual experiences, particularly her mystical marriage with Jesus and receiving the stigmata. St. Catherine, along with St. Francis, are patron saints of Italy.
She courageously nursed plague victims, performed healings, and lived an austere life. Feisty as always, she involved herself in disputes between Siena and Florence, advocated for an end to the seventy-year schism when the pope resided in France, and got him back to Rome. Her letters and mystical writings earned her the title of Doctor of the Church in 1970. She died in Rome in 1380.
Giovanni di Paolo, St. Catherine Exchanging her Heart with Christ (above),and The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena (below) and about 1460. Tempura and gold on wood. Catherine had a vision of Christ taking her as a spiritual bride. She also prayed for a pure and clean heart and in the painting she floats above her Sienese neighborhood as her prayers are answered. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
The Catholic church has long regarded saintly body parts or holy objects worthy of veneration. The New Testament documents the strong healing power of objects touched by Christ or the Apostles. Relics bridge the here and now with the afterlife and the Resurrection. The church has three classes of relics. A first class relic is a body part; a second class relic is a personal object such as clothing worn by the saint and a third class relic is something comes in contact with a first class relic. In America, the veneration of relics may not have as long of a history, or as common in each parish, but in Italy it is still widely practiced.
Christian relic cults were initially founded on old pagan sacred sites. Like the saying goes, “all politics are local”, so relics follow suit. Most relics are housed in churches, along pilgrimage routes and in parishes close to where the saint lived or performed miracles. Private individuals also obtained relics for family worship. Only in 2016 did the Vatican ban the sale of first class relics, however, relics are easily found on websites.
It was a great honor for a church to house and display a relic. Catherine of Siena is a bit unusual in that her body is dismembered in three locations – a testament, however, to the importance of possessing a first class relic. Because she died in Rome, Siena desperately wanted her body back in her home town. They received her head and thumb in 1383.
Left, exterior of Basilica di San Domenico, Siena. The interior (center) has flags from Siena’s 17 different contrade, wards or neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has a symbolic icon, mostly animals. San Domenico is located in the Contrada dell’Oca, the Goose. Contrade are an integral part of Siena with street notices posted about baptisms, weddings, funerals or other events. Right, the Chapel of St. Catherine.
San Domenico looms large on the western edge of Siena. Located in Catherine’s home neighborhood, where her family’s house still stands, the church is very much alive with worshippers today. Began in 1226, the church is a typical Dominican style with a wide aisleless nave and a narrow choir with side chapels.
A busload of Catholics – mostly women from the US - had just come from Catherine’s chapel and were crowded around the small gift shop located near the chapel, crammed floor to ceiling full of rosaries, crucifixes, prayer books, Catherine pictures, candles, keychains, scapulars, and other memorabilia. They were like kids in a candy store deciding which items to purchase. They were very impressed to have just seen and worshiped the relics of St. Catherine.
Catherine’s head is rather macabre, and her foot, located in Santi Giovani and Paolo in Venice, are partially decomposed. The reason her foot is in Santi Giovanni and Paolo in Venice is not entirely clear; perhaps as a Dominican church there was a connection with her Dominican order. Catherine traveled quite a bit and had a following of sisters. She was well known throughout Italy and France.
Saintly body parts, hands, feet, arms, legs, bones, or whole bodies are frequently found in churches. The entire bodies of saints are freaky finds in small off the beaten tourist track churches. Cortona has two bodies well worth the visit not only for the views outside the churches but also for the goulish remains.
The body of Beato Pietro Capucci lies in San Niccolo. He looks fairly decomposed and shrunken as does the body of Santa Margherita in the church named after her. The lack of decomposition is called incorruptibility and is considered a sign of divinity and sainthood. The church clarified incorruptible characteristics only in 1734, specifying that the body should remain relatively lifelike, fresh with natural color and flexible for many years – not necessarily forever. Evidently these saints have moved on from their incorruptible state.
Left: Beato Pietro Capucci, San Niccolo’, Cortona. A Dominican priest, he died in 1445. October 21, 1945, at the end of World War II when Cortona was liberated, his body was solemnly processed through the town.
Right: Santa Margherita, Basilica di Santa Margherita, Cortona. This gem of a church lies in a high position northeast of the center, overlooking Cortona and the valley below. Few tourists make the effort to see the stunning view and lovely church. Margherita (Margaret) lived in sin with a man and had a child. When he died she turned to the Franciscans for assistance. She is the patron saint of single mothers. The church is still operated by Franciscan priests and nuns.
The chapels containing relics or their body parts are works of art. Body parts are kept in ornate and decorative reliquaries made of gold, silver, ivory or other materials decorated with precious stones. Some reliquaries mimic the body part they contain, such as arm with a bone fragment or head containing a saint’s skull.
This type of container is called a “speaking” reliquary and has little windows to view the bone or body part. Reliquaries could hold remains of one or many saints – the more the better for intercession. Arm-shaped reliquaries were especially suitable for procession and for liturgical ceremonies as the priest could hold up and move the reliquary.
San Marco, Venice, reliquaries in the Tesoro (Treasury). Located to the far right of the entry, the Tesoro is filled with hundreds of ornately decorated liturgical items and saintly remains of doges, St. Mark’s thumb, St. Roch’s femur, and the arm of St. George slaying the dragon (arm on the far right). It is worth a few extra dollars to see the Tesoro. The Eastern and Byzantine influence is readily apparent in many of the objects.
Some relics seem improbable, but none the less sacred. Because the Virgin was assumed into heaven – she did not leave her body on earth – Florence obtained two important relics of the Virgin. One is a girdle (more like a cloth tie) she let slip to earth during her assumption and the other are drops of breast milk spilled while nursing. Implausible as it may seem, these relics became important for Florence and prestigious frescoes were commissioned to decorate the chapel where the girdle is kept in Prato.
Perhaps the most difficult relic to justify as probable are pieces of wood from the cross which Jesus was crucified. The story of finding the relic has inspired many a painting, one of the most famous being Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross in the Arezzo church of San Francesco. A complicated story involves the history of a tree from Adam and Eve that eventually becomes the cross of Jesus’ crucifixion. Empress Helena discovers the true cross in Jerusalem. There are relic fragments from the cross in Greece, Texas, Italy and many other locations, enough to make for a very large cross. Very few have been carbon dated but none so far have originated from the time of Jesus. If nothing else, this underscores the intense devotion and interest in obtaining sacred objects.
Reliquary, Marches region, Italy 1366-1400. Made of translucent enamel, rock crystal, silver, silver-gilt, glass. Detailed scenes from Jesus’ life and saints linked to St. Francis surround the center of the cross which once held wood thought to be from the true cross. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Which brings me to my mother’s relic. My mother, a devout Catholic, suffered pregnancy losses. Sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s she purchased a relic of St. Gerard Majella, patron saint of pregnant women. She prayed for a healthy birth, and she ultimately had two healthy babies. I don’t know how she acquired the tiny bone fragment, but according to mom, the power of the relic worked.
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Kennedy, Trinita, ed. Sanctity Pictured: The Art of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in Renaissance Italy. Philip Wilson, 2014.
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Tylus, Jane. City of Secrets: Siena. The University of Chicago Press. 2015.