Magnificent Corpses: Searching Through Europe for St. Peter's Head, St. Claire's Heart, St. Stephen's Hand, and Other Saintly Relic

Anneli Rufus, Author Da Capo Press $13.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-56924-687-0
The veneration of relics, especially the bones, body parts and body fluids of saints, has a long and rather grisly history in Christianity. In addition, the legends that accompany the deaths of the saints provide fodder for worshippers to seek out the fingernails, hair, tongues, hearts and heads of these blessed ones so that by touching them they may receive God's grace. As a teenager, Rufus (The World Holiday Book), even though Jewish, was fascinated by these ""extraordinary tales of girls who had their eyes torn out, their breasts slashed off, who sang while being boiled."" In a book that is part travel guide, part detective story and part history of the saints, Rufus recounts her searches for more than 20 of Europe's relics. As she notes, some of these relics continue to exert enormous appeal. ""In certain churches, mummies lie like well-loved mascots...it is difficult to find a pew in the Paris chapel where the corpse of St. Catherine Laboure lies with its blue eyes wide open.... Pilgrims line up for a chance to see St. Anthony's severed tongue, to touch and kiss the glass that shields it."" In a wonderfully warm and engaging style, Rufus retells the stories of saints like Ursula and the 11,000 virgins, who, legend has it, were murdered by pagans upon their return to Cologne after a voyage to Rome. The women's remains are housed in the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne, where, Rufus notes, ""Bones flock in the walls like geometric bands, zigzags and crosses. Vertebrae scatter like thick white blossoms...I crane my neck to see the femurs overhead."" Among other shrines she visits is that of St. Maria Goretti in the church of Our Lady of Graces in Nettuno, Italy. According to legend, Maria chose death over rape and eight years later visited her assailant in a dream that converted him. Her bones are encased in a wax figure of the young girl inside a glass casket in the shrine. Rufus reports that the gift shop has locks of Maria's hair on display, lurid dime novels about the case, and even comic books about Maria's story. Rufus's splendid storytelling takes readers on a European tour not soon forgotten, one that explores religion's fascination with death. (July)
Reviewed on: 05/31/1999
Release date: 06/01/1999
Genre: Nonfiction
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