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Female Medieval Saints – Incorruptible Bodies and Heavenly Scents
We live in a world full of wonders and mysteries; things we cannot fully explain even with all of our modern technology. One such mystery is that of the incorruptible saints of the medieval Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. So what is an incorruptible medieval saint? Sometimes when a person who led an especially pure and holy life died or was martyred for their faith, their bodies did not decompose after their death in the usual way. Their burials may have been delayed for some reason or they were exhumed from their original graves and, instead of having decayed, their skin was still smooth, their limbs were pliable and they looked as if they were just sleeping.
Some bodies were reported to have stayed warm long after death or a limb would carry on moving. Some of these bodies gave off a beautiful sweet scent known as ‘the Odour of Sanctity’, exuded a holy oil called ‘The Oil of the Saints’ or continued to bleed from their martyrdom wounds or stigmata. Some of the remains had even had quicklime poured over them which should have damaged or destroyed the corpse, but for some reason had no effect on the saint’s body. These bodies were not mummified or artificially preserved in any way so what was going on? Was it a miracle or a natural phenomenon?
You can still see these incorruptible saints in many churches across Europe, although now there may be only parts of the body on display or the saint may be covered with a wax image. There are over two hundred such miraculously preserved bodies still in existence, often displayed in ornate glass reliquaries embellished with gemstones. The reason there is so many is that the medieval church was very enthusiastic about exhuming the bodies of any potential saints. If reports started coming in that miracles or spontaneous healings were taking place after worshippers had prayed at a graveside or a particular deceased holy person was pulling in large numbers of pilgrims, the body would be removed from its grave and there would be a huge sigh of relief if the body was still in a good state of preservation.
For back in the Middle Ages, possessing the body of an incorruptible saint meant big money and prestige to a church or abbey. Going on pilgrimage and venerating saint’s relics was the equivalent of the big sporting event or package holiday for medieval folk. The shrine they visited would benefit because they would leave alms, pay for masses or buy holy relics and the local town would reap the financial rewards of providing food, lodgings and entertainment. So it is perhaps not surprising there was stiff competition between the religious centres for pilgrims and it tended to be the shrine that had the most or the holiest relics that hit the jackpot. And possessing the relics of an incorruptible saint almost guaranteed large numbers of pilgrims to provide a never-ending flow of money into the church’s coffers.
There have been attempts to explain the phenomenon of incorruptible saints by scientists, including being buried in an unusual type of soil and the temperature of the grave. However, some of these holy people had never actually been buried for some reason, or their clothes had been found to have decayed normally while their corpses had not or they exhumed from graves where there were other bodies which had decomposed. Modern forensics has given some proof, however, that at least some of these bodies had been artificially preserved after their death. The church is, perhaps understandably, resistant to having the phenomenon scientifically explained as having an incorrupt body is still one of the criteria used for deciding whether a candidate for sainthood should be canonised. There is also the inconvenient fact that other incorrupt bodies have been found of people who were neither particularly holy nor even Christian during their lifetime. Some bodies just decay at a slower rate than others and even the scientists do not fully understand the reasons why this is so.
So let’s have a look at some female incorrupt medieval saints and find out how they ended up in a large glass case being gawked at by thousands of people. Incorrupt saints started to appear very early on in the history of the church. The Romans were particularly zealous in their mission to create Christian martyrs and the first incorruptible saint we know of is St Cecilia who was martyred in Rome around 230 AD. According to legend Cecilia was a beautiful and pious young girl, who fasted regularly and wore a hair shirt next to her skin. She was betrothed to a young man named Valerian, but would not consummate their marriage as she swore she had an angel who guarded her virginity. Not surprisingly, Valerian asked to see this angel but his new wife said this would only be possible if he joined the faith and sent him off to be baptised by Pope Urban.
On his return home, he duly witnessed the angel hovering over St Cecilia as she prayed. The angel then crowned them both with wreaths of roses and lilies before disappearing. Valerian’s brother Tribertius was so impressed with the floral crowns and the story of the angel that he was also baptised and the brothers dedicated themselves to the task of giving Christian martyrs a decent burial in the catacombs of Rome. This did not go down well with the Roman authorities and they were arrested and executed with swords.
Undeterred by the gruesome fate of her nearest and dearest, St Cecilia carried on preaching and converting people to the Christian faith; sending them off to Pope Urban for baptism. She too was then arrested and shut up in the baths as the Roman executioners built huge fires to slowly roast or suffocate her to death. According to the legend, the saint did not even break out in a sweat despite the intense heat, so a swordsman was sent in to decapitate her. He struck three blows but still failed to cut off her head, so left her dying and bleeding in the bath. St Cecilia survived like this for three whole days, while friends and relatives gathered to collect her blood on sponges or rags as she prayed for them and sang hymns. Her grave was discovered in 817 AD and her remains were moved to the Church of St Cecilia in Rome. This tomb was opened in 1599 and when her body was removed it was found to be miraculously incorrupt.
St Margaret of Cortona
St Margaret was born near Cortona in 1247. She enjoyed a wonderful childhood until she was seven when her mother passed away. Her father then swiftly found himself a new wife and the traumatised young girl had to live with the stepmother from hell. This woman made her life so difficult the beautiful Margaret ran away from home and fell in with a bad lot. She drank, stole and had lots of boyfriends. She started living with one of these unsavoury characters, but one day he went out and failed to return home. She fretted and worried for hours until eventually his dog showed up, pulling at her skirts like he wanted her to follow him. So she followed him out into the forest where she found her lover lying dead in a pool of blood.
The shock of the murder made her examine the way she had been living and she returned to the faith of her childhood. She decided she must do a public penance for her sins, so she cut off her beautiful long hair, put a cord around her neck and went and kneeled on the church steps to pray. But even this very public humiliation did reconcile her with her family and the local townspeople, so she made her home in a humble shack and spent her days in prayer and penitence. She chose to live in extreme poverty as she had a desire to join the Third Order as a penitent, but she had to wait three long years before she was accepted.
From the time she joined the Order her life consisted of prayer, penance, mortifying her flesh and humiliating herself to try to gain forgiveness for the wickedness of her earlier days. Not surprisingly after such a tough regime she died at the age of fifty. She had been regarded as a holy person during her lifetime as she spent a lot of time with other sinners praying for their immortal souls and healing for their physical bodies. After her death she was interred in a shrine built for her in the Franciscan Church in Cortona. Her body is still miraculously incorrupt and it is said that a haunting floral scent still sometimes wafts through the chapel where her body lies.
As we are beginning to see, the path to sainthood was often hard, painful and ended in martyrdom. According to tradition Saint Agatha was a beautiful young woman born into a prosperous family in Sicily during the Roman era. Despite her family background, she was a devout, studious young lady who spent a good deal of her time giving alms and praying. Unfortunately, her luminous beauty attracted the amorous attentions of a Roman prefect called Quintianus, who started trying to woo her. These advances were unacceptable to the pious young St Agatha, so she turned him down flat.
Few men take rejection well, but Quintianus took his revenge on the innocent young girl to a whole new level. He had her arrested for spreading her Christian faith and then had her tortured in prison. Part of her suffering was having her breasts cut off and being returned to her prison cell with no dressings or treatment for her grievous wounds. During the night which followed St Peter miraculously appeared in her cell and healed her of all her physical injuries. He filled the tiny room with such a blinding light the guards were all filled with terror and ran away, leaving her cell door open. She could have escaped, but her faith made her choose to stay to endure more torture such as being rolled over smashed tiles and being burned with coals.
Her rejected suitor then had her sentenced to be burned at the stake, but the area was shaken by a mysterious earthquake which saved St Agatha’s life at the last minute. She was put back in her prison cell and died there in 251 AD. Her body was exhumed from her grave in the 11th century and was found to be miraculously preserved and parts of her incorrupt relics still survive today.
St Clare of Assisi
St Clare was another young lady who was lucky enough to have been born into a rich, noble family of Assisi in 1194. She was also a beautiful and charming child and as she grew into womanhood attracted many handsome suitors. However, her interests lay in fasting, prayer and tending to the sick and poor. She went to listen to St Francis preach in the cathedral at Assisi when she was 18 during Lent in 1212 and realised she had a vocation to be a nun. Her family greatly opposed losing their much loved daughter to the religious life, but her sister Agnes also then followed her into the religious life. St Francis placed them together in a small convent called St Damian and gave them a rule to follow as his Second Order where they had to live in seclusion from the world, survive in poverty and do strict penance.
In the year 1240 Assisi was besieged by Emperor Frederick’s army of Saracens. The other sisters in the convent panicked as the mercenaries started scaling the city walls, but St Clare calmly took the Pyx containing the Holy Sacrament from the altar to one of the convent windows and began praying. Immediately the invading troops started to falter in their attack as a brilliant light miraculously radiated out of the Pyx, blinding them with its brilliance. The troops fled in terror and the town and convent were spared.
St Clare endured a hard life, for a well as living in poverty and praying and working tirelessly, she was also very ill for over thirty years before dying in August 1253. She was buried the day following her passing, but seven year later in 1255 Pope Alexander IV canonised her as a saint. Her remains were exhumed and her body was found to be incorrupt. During the 19th century a new crypt was constructed for St Clare’s relics, but when they moved the body they discovered it was no longer perfectly preserved, although her skeleton was still in a good condition. Her relics still lie in the crypt and can be viewed today, although they are now covered with a wax effigy of her dressed in the nun’s habit of the Poor Clares, the order she founded.
Do you think incorruptible saints are
There are many more female incorrupt saints such as St Catherine of Bologna, St Clare of Montefalco, St Rita of Cascia, St Ethelreda, St Zita and St Catherine of Siena. Their bodies are in different states of preservation, although these older remains generally look shrivelled and sunken, not like the smooth skinned, pliable, fragrant corpses that were reported from medieval times. At the end of the day, whether you think their preservation is a miracle or a natural occurrence is a matter of personal faith.
But several themes do come out from these women’s stories. One is that the Church used the narrative of these saint’s mortal lives to push their own agenda. Much of what we know about them is myth and legend not fact anyway, and the medieval Church cleverly used these stories to shape how ordinary women were to live their lives. The life of St Cecilia was even published as a story in the 4th century AD by the pope to counteract the effects of the more sensual, worldly literature doing the rounds at that time. There were only two real roles for a medieval woman; she was either an innocent virgin or a mother. If you managed to crack both at the same time you got to be the queen of heaven.
As the story of St Margaret of Cortona portrays, if you did choose to live a more secular life or went spectacularly off the rails, you would have to eat an awful lot of humble pie and do a heavy penance before you stood any chance of forgiveness. Another thing the medieval Church was very wary of in women was physical beauty. An attractive woman was a ‘snare of the devil’, designed to lure poor, unsuspecting men into the sins of lust and fornication. The lives of these female saints showed that either their beauty led them into a life of vice for which they had to pay a heavy price in penance before they were forgiven or it was something to be subjugated. These beautiful, charming young women were put up on pedestals because they starved themselves, mortified their flesh, cut off their hair and wore rough materials against their skin. They were the religious role models for other young girls who might otherwise be swept away in a tide of romance, soft silks, heady perfumes and feasting on rich food and wine.
It is also patently clear the medieval church regarded these incorrupt saints as material assets. They were crowd pullers; so if their life stories, miracles and healings were well marketed they could rapidly fill the coffers to boost the ever growing wealth of the church. In the light of the profits that could be made, it is perhaps not surprising some bodies were artificially helped to remain in a good state of preservation or a legend embellished somewhat here or there. Personally, I also take issue with the belief that a life filled with physical pain, poverty, penance and humiliation is required before a woman holy can be deemed holy. Women should be free to live the life they choose, without restraints and without being controlled by religious institutions usually made up of and run by men.
Wikipedia - Incorruptibility - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incorruptibility
Mary Pages - Incorrupt Bodies -
Roman Catholic Saints -
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