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The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.
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Margaret and the hound. (Photos: turatti/Flickr)

Margaret and the hound. (Photos: turatti/Flickr)

If you take a trip to Tuscany, and have a dash of morbid curiosity (or religious piety, either way), you might want to stop in to the Franciscan Church of Cortona. Once there, you can pay a visit to Margaret of Cortona. Her feet stick out from under the shroud; her face is pinched, and her eyes are closed as if she were asleep. She died in 1297. That considered, she looks great.

Margaret of Cortona’s path to sainthood was unlikely, or at least roundabout. Born to farmers in Tuscany in 1247, she grew up spoiled, restless, and beautiful. Her mother died at a young age, and her stepmother’s temperament was like something out of a Disney movie. Margaret lashed out; she had a great number of male admirers, and she soon earned a reputation genteelly described by Alban Goodier in Saints for Sinners as “not to be envied.”

Before  Margaret was 17, Goodier writes, she left the town she grew up in to become a servant for a young nobleman who—though married—began a relationship with her. The nobleman promised to marry her, eventually, but he never did. They lived together for 10 years, during which time Margaret gave birth to their son. (What the nobleman’s wife had to say about this situation is, unfortunately, not something I could track down.) Then, when Margaret was 27, yet another tragedy struck: The nobleman’s hound, having gone abroad on a trip with his master, returned home without him. According to lore, the hound led Margaret to her lover’s body, apparently murdered and half-buried in a shallow forest grave. (I can’t find any information about who killed him. But I have a theory.)

She died in 1297. That considered, she looks great.

It’s said that her lover’s death shocked Margaret into a lifetime of penitence and virtue. She took her son to her father’s house, but her stepmother wouldn’t allow them to live there, so she sought help from the Franciscan friars at Cortona. After three years spent fasting and proving her purity of heart, Margaret joined the Third Order of Saint Francis. She established a hospital for Cortona’s underserved. She spoke out against the Bishop of Arezzo for living in luxury. She also once saved a whole town, according to Discover magazine: “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.”

At 50, she died—but, according to legend, her body didn’t decompose. She was an “incorruptible,” the Roman Catholic term ascribed to people whose saintly lives are reflected in the permanence of their Earthly bodies. Joan Carroll Cruz, who surveyed her and other saints’ bodies in the 1977 book The Incorruptibles, wrote that “[her] eyes are full and all the nails of the feet and hands are still in place.” She looked “completely whole,” he wrote—almost 750 years after her death. It was a miracle.

THERE ARE DOZENS OF saints considered incorruptible, though the exact extent of that incorruptibility varies. Saint Vincent’s entire body was said to be incorrupt upon exhumation 53 years after his death; though it later decomposed, his heart alone maintained incorruptible status, and is displayed separate from his body at the Chapel of the Daughters of Charity in Paris.

Saint Bernadette is perhaps the most famous and most-cited example of incorruptibility; a YouTube video sneakily taken inside the Chapel of Saint Gidard at the Sisters of Charity in Nevers has over 450,000 views. Whoever is holding the camera zooms in close on her smooth, young-looking face and hands, which do look remarkable for someone who died in 1879. But it’s well known, and openly admitted, that Bernadette’s body wears a wax mask, and wax hands. Though Saint Bernadette was deemed “incorrupt” in the three exhumations required for her canonization, the notes made by the attending physicians describe a body in a definitive state of decomposition. “The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mildew and quite a notable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts,” wrote the doctor who examined her in 1919. “The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body.”

There is also substantial evidence that many (if not all) incorruptibles had human assistance. At the turn of the 21st century, the Vatican commissioned a team of pathologists and chemists to study saints’ bodies. The team encountered many cases in which saints had clearly been mummified, often by their followers, in an attempt to preserve (or help preserve) their bodies. One of these cases was Saint Margaret of Cortona.

That Joan Carroll Cruz called her “completely whole” overlooked a great deal—pathologist Ezio Fulcheri found incisions streaked up and down Margaret’s legs, and cuts in her abdomen and chest that had been sewed shut with black thread. In other words, she’d been mummified, and thoroughly, using techniques that evoked practices found in ancient Egypt. Fulcheri also found a historical record that showed the people of Cortona had publicly requested that the Church embalm Margaret. It often happened this way, he explains; early Christians read in the New Testament that Christ’s body was anointed in oils, and so they treated the bodies of their holy dead in kind—whether they knew it or not, helping ensure preservation. Centuries later, that human involvement was forgotten, or let go, and the state of saints’ bodies was attributed to God alone. (Though earlier examiners may have suspected chemical assistance in Margaret’s preservation, Fulcheri guessed they may have been too modest to lift her dress to check.)

Over time, sainthood’s requirements have shifted a little; since John Paul II’s 1983 constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister, candidates for canonization must perform two miracles posthumously in order to earn the label “saint” (a level beyond the honorific “blessed”). The interpretation of “miracle” is somewhat flexible; Pope John Paul II himself was famously generous with sainthood, canonizing more saints during his papacy than the previous 17 popes combined. But if there is still something miraculous about an unusually well-preserved body, it is no longer official—incorruptibility can no longer be counted as one of those two miracles.