Every religion has something in it that might seem strange to outsiders and the Roman Catholic church is no exception. Roman Catholics believe that some people are so holy during their lives that their bodies are unable to decompose due to divine intervention after death making them “incorruptible”. The incorruptibles have been discovered anywhere from a couple of months to hundreds of years after their deaths. In order to be truly incorrupt, common methods of preservation, such as embalming or mummification, cannot have been performed on the deceased. This means that they remain in tact naturally. However many of the incorrupt on display in Italy have been preserved by other means, since discovering they were one of the incorruptibles in order to preserve the condition of the body at the time it was discovered. According to pathologists, the act of opening a tomb can disrupt the micro-climates that lead to spontaneous preservation. If the tomb was never disturbed then the body would have been preserved forever, explaining why many of the incorruptible are decomposing in their glass tombs on display. It is not the current state that made them incorruptible, but rather the state they were in when originally discovered.
1. This is St. Francesca Romana, also called Santa Maria Nova, who was deemed incorrupt a few months after her death in 1440. When her tomb was reopened two centuries later she was nothing but bone in a nun’s habit. However, because she had not decomposed from her death to when her tomb was first opened she was labeled incorrupt and will not lose that status no matter what happened to her body since then.
2. This is Blessed Anna Maria Taigi who died in 1837. Her tomb was opened after 18 years in order to move her closer to Rome as requested by everyone who knew and loved her. It was then that they discovered her body looked as though she had died the day before instead of 18 years prior. It was opened again 3 years later and although her clothes had started to deteriorate, her body had not. She was changed into new clothes and again sealed in a double coffin. In 1920 when it was opened for a 3rd time, her body had begun to decompose so a layer of wax was put on her face and hands to preserve her resemblance. She is on display in the San Crisogono church in Rome.
3. This is Saint Victoria of Tivoli who was a martyr for her religion when she refused to marry a man who was not of her faith. She was ultimately tortured and killed because she did not renounce her faith in Christianity in 250 AD. She was removed from the Roman Catacombs when it was heard she died as a martyr and at that time they found her to be incorrupt. She currently lies in the Santa Maria Della Vittoria Church in Rome and her body is encased in a wax effigy for preservation.
This is a closeup of Saint Victoria’s hand which is encased in a wax effigy with cutaways to show the relics beneath the wax covering.
4. This is the body of Saint Giovani Da Triora who was martyred while serving a mission in China. He was tortured and then strangled to death after being hung on a cross for not renouncing his faith in 1816 AD. His body is on display at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven in Rome.
5. This is the right Forearm of Saint Francis Xavier. Saint Francis was known as one of the greatest missionaries since Saint Paul and died from a fever in 1552 AD. It was discovered he was incorruptible in 1533. The rest of his body is in Basilica of Born Jesus in Goa in a glass case enclosed by a silver casket where it has been since 1637, but his right arm, which was used to bless and baptize his converts, was removed in 1614 and is on display in a silver reliquary in the church of the Gesu in Rome. His arms were removed by Superior General Claudio Acquaviva. His left arm is currently at St. Joseph’s Seminary and the Sacred Art Museum.
6. This is Saint Paula Frassinetti who helped establish an order known as the Sisters of Saint Dorothy. She devoted her life to helping the poor and died in 1882. Her body was found to be incorruptible in 1906. Since then she has become little more than a skeleton, however her facial features remain intact due to being bathed in carbolic acid. She is currently on display in a glass coffin at the Convent of St Dorotea in Rome.
7. This is Saint Cecilia who is encased in white marble in the position in which she was found when martyred. The marble even depicts the wound to her throat where she was struck 3 times and died 3 days later. She is the first of the incorruptibles having been martyred between 176 and 180 AD. Her body was moved in 1599 at which time she was still found to be incorrupt.
8. These are the remains of Saint Wittoria, who some say is one and the same as Saint Vicoria and that the wax effigy doesn’t, in fact, have remains inside at all, but the remains are here, wrapped in gauze, dressed and encased in a glass display at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, in Rome. However, that doesn’t explain the relics you can see in the cutaway of the wax effigy’s hand above.
9. This is Saint Robert Bellamine who died in 1621. His remains are displayed behind glass in cardinal red robes under a side altar in the Church of Saint Ignatius at the chapel of the Roman College.
10. This is the effigy of Saint Camilius de Lellis displayed in La Maddalena, Rome. He died in 1614 AD. However his skeleton is not in the effigy but is in a compartment underneath the display.
11. The incorrupt body of St. Pope Pius V who died in 1572. His body is encased in silver and is displayed in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
12. This is the wax effigy of Saint Carlo da Sezze who died in 1670. The skeletal remains are under the altar behind the effigy in the San Francesco d’Assisi a Ripa Grande church in Rome.
The incorruptibles fascinate me and I wish that I was able to find more information on each of them. I tried to find out exactly how it was discovered that each saint was incorrupt but those details have eluded me. Often times I was only able to discover when they were beatified and/or canonized but those articles did not go into detail regarding when or how they were found to be incorrupt. To be canonized is when someone is declared a saint and beatification is the recognition that someone has gained entrance to heaven. Both of these are most likely indicators of when it was discovered they were incorrupt because, as mentioned before, being incorrupt is an indication that they were so holy in life that their body is being prevented from decomposing by God which gains them sainthood. Regardless of whether you believe the incorruptibles are irrefutable proof of God, or if you believe it is a result of ideal circumstances explained by science, or if you believe it is God working by means of science, the incorruptibles are an interesting part of the history found in the Roman Catholic religion.