“Magnificent Corpses”

A guide to saints' relics in Europe should satisfy the most grisly-minded readers.

Topics: Religion, Catholicism, Books,

I found my first preserved saint almost 20 years ago in Gubbio, a haunted stone hill town in Umbria. Her leathery remains rested peacefully on a red satin pillow inside the Duomo. What soft, delicate carving, I thought, assuming the thing within the holy garments to be a walnut replica of the saint — until I noticed an unmistakable recess between the forearm and the wrist not quite covered by our lady’s lace gloves. Exquisite. What better refuge from the breathless Tuscan sun than these occasional reflective communings with Italy’s pago-Christian past?

Hiking back down the terraced streets from the Duomo, I found another view. Some 20, maybe 25 scruffy rockers were hanging around outside the local communist party youth center, swathed in the sweet smell of hash, waiting for … almost anything to happen. The fine relic above seemed to cast little blessing on the unemployed below.

Had I been able to read “Magnificent Corpses,” Anneli Rufus’ charmingly grotesque guide to the saintly relics of Europe, before my trip, I would have had a better grip on just how pagan Holy Mother Church really is, especially when it comes to matters of the ecstatic. Men whipping themselves raw; adolescent girls hyperventilating as their “lover” (the savior) slices open their young flesh, thrusting his hot heart in and out, in and out, until they cry out for surcease — these are stories familiar to any Catholic child raised on the lives of the saints. Oddly, Rufus, raised as a secular Jew in Los Angeles, found the stories as compelling as the holy sisters did, not because they offer guides to a higher spirituality but because they reveal how thoroughly perverse religion can become to the desperate seeking possession.

Beautiful British Ursula embarked in the third century down the Rhine to Rome to see a pope named Ciriacus; she was accompanied by 11,000 virgins who, upon their return to Germany, were slaughtered in a single day, victims of the wrath of Ursula’s rejected suitor. Poor Gaspare del Bufalo, tossed into the dungeons for refusing allegiance to Napoleon, mingled among the thieves and robbers, flailing himself with whips and chains, until he succumbed at last to the cholera plague of 1836. Maria Goretti, a servant child, was stabbed 14 times by her master’s son for failing to yield her virginity.

The stories are grisly enough, and so are the bodies (or body parts) left behind: petrified Saint Catherine of Bologna, strapped upright in a glass-enclosed chair for 500 years; Santa Zita, the miracle child of the poor, her mummy head “the color and tautness of a teabag just plucked from the cup … her eyes crushed, nose hooked … her mouth open, the way grandmothers sometimes sleep”; brave Saint John Southworth, drawn and quartered under the laws of Henry VIII, then stitched back together and dispatched (with beaten silver covering the missing elements) to Westminster Cathedral in 1930.

Rufus not only tells us the saintly lore, she leads us into the chapels to join the pierced punkers, the helmeted bikers, the terrified children she finds contemplating the holy body parts. Her prose is spare; she allows the scenes to make their own commentary. In Burgundy, she takes us to see the wax-encased bones of Sainte Marguerite Marie Alacoque, who at 7 took her vow of chastity and as a young nun lay prostrate on her stone floor each night waiting for Christ to make his regular visitation, during which he “penetrated” her and made known to her “the unspeakable marvels of his love.” Rufus leaves the church to have a coffee in the only open cafe, where the young couple behind the counter sing along to Smashing Pumpkins, “I’m horny, I’m hornyhornyhorny. I’m horny, I’m horny tonight.”

Take her with you on your next European vacation. She’s the perfect companion to your Lonely Planet guide.

Frank Browning reported for nearly 30 years for NPR on sex, science and farming. He is the author of, among other books, "A Queer Geography" and "Apples."

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