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Under the patronage of St. Tammany
Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children. Email
Inside a side chapel at the cathedral of San Frediano in Lucca, Italy, bouquets of lilies and orchids perfume the air with the sweet fragrance of sanctity. A respectful hush descends over the curious and faithful alike as they gaze up at a reliquary of gold and glass. Lying on a bed of brocade is one of Roman Catholics' most beloved icons, Saint Zita. Born in 1218 in the village of Monte Sagrati, Zita led a life of singular virtue. Raised in abject poverty, she was sent out to work as a child in the home of a wealthy merchant in nearby Lucca, where her kindnesses were legion. She gave up her bed to homeless women and dispensed her own meals to the poor. When she died at around the age of 60, her body was laid to rest in a burial vault in San Frediano. Memories of her holiness remained vivid, however, and people pressed the Church to declare her a saint. When ecclesiastical officials exhumed the humble servant nearly 300 years after her death, one of the miraculous signs of sainthood was immediately apparent: Zita was whole and intact, her body resistant to the decay reserved for ordinary humans. And so she has remained through another 400 and more years. Crowned with a ring of dried pink roses and wearing a gown of soft green velvet, she lies on her bier virtually untouched by time. Her gaunt face is dark but smooth. Her hands are soft and supple looking. Her lustrous nails gleam.
Saint Zita is one of the Incorruptibles -- the name given by medieval Catholic clergy to the astonishingly preserved bodies of saints, martyrs, and beati, the blesseds on the road to canonization…100 or so Incorruptibles…are known to exist… From "The Incorruptibles," by Heather Pringle, originally published in Discover, June 2001 (scroll down for text).
For more on the phenomenon of incorruptible bodies of saints, see "Saints Preserve Us," a fascinating article in Fortean Times. (That would appear to be the head of St. Catherine of Siena preserved in the ornate reliquary.)
An excerpt: Because there have been many impeccable accounts of incorruptibility, many presumed saints were exhumed and re-interred. It soon became the custom to exhume all candidates for beatification or canonisation. Throughout the Middle Ages, churches vied for possession of incorrupt bodies, as they were a proven magnet for pilgrims (who, of course, brought offerings and donations). Despite its damp climate, mediæval Britain has nurtured a good number of saintly characters whose bodies didn’t decay, including Cuthbert, Werburgh, Waltheof and Guthlac. Amongst them were two royal sisters (Etheldreda and Withburga), a king (Edward the Confessor), a bishop (Hugh of Lincoln) and an archbishop of Canterbury (Alphege). At the Reformation, all their shrines were destroyed and the incorrupt body parts dispersed. When her shrine at Ely Cathedral was destroyed, the saintly Queen Etheldreda’s hand was preserved by a devout Catholic family. The still incorrupt hand was enshrined, some 400 years later, when a little Catholic Church was re-established in Ely. An apocryphal story relates how the present Queen, on a tour of the cathedral, met the crusty Irish priest of the little Catholic Church. She asked him if it wouldn’t be a ‘nice gesture’ to return the hand of St Etheldreda to the cathedral; he replied that it would be a nice gesture for her to return the cathedral to the Catholic church.
See also this site devoted to images of the incorrupt bodies of saints. (Includes music, so you may wish to hit mute before visiting).