All the Saints You Should Know

Bodies, bones, relics, lore, and oddities from the Catholic Church

Anonymous asked: Don't you think it's a bit disrespectful to be taking pictures of the deceased? Not trying to sound rude. Genuine question.

No offence taken. Personally, no, I don’t think it’s disrespectful in this particular case.

In the US we’re very “rest in peace” about our dead. In fact, we should consider adding “do not disturb” to every toe tag because we tend to get corpses out of sight as quickly as possible so they can go decompose by themselves. Sometimes there’s no physical interaction between the recently deceased and non-professionals at all anymore- “direct cremation” is our (increasingly popular) phrase for that. 

That isn’t the case everywhere in the world though. In many cultures death still has a public face. Just look at festivals like Ma’Nene in Indonesia or Dia de los Muertos in Mexico or Festa di Tutti i Santi in Italy. And check out the link below to my piece on the putridaria of Italy. In that specific example, the public display of human remains is linked to very important religious concepts. So in that context looking at and tending to corpses in public is respectful, whereas leaving them alone to decay isn’t. 

These mummies, for example, were never meant to just rest in peace. They were originally buried knowing that they would be dug up and put in the church’s ossuary. The only hitch was that they accidently mummified. In fact, after they were discovered in 1917, a monk floated the idea of reburying them but no one wanted to because the residents considered the mummies to be an important part of their history and members of the community.

I’ll be the first to admit that I walk a line on this blog when I photograph human remains and holy objects. But there are a few other factors that dictate what I photograph and when. For example, I always have permission to photograph and if I don’t know, I ask. I would never photograph a private event- be it a funeral, a religious service or an autopsy. And I always try to get the full history out there- that’s why I’m working on a well-researched piece about these guys- they’re real people and they deserve to be more than creepy photos on the internet.

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Another person I assume you know if you read this blog is Caitlin Doughty of Ask A Mortician fame. I wrote a guest post on her blog this week about a deathy bit of church architecture called a putridarium. Over there I’ll tell you all about what it is and explain why Italian Catholics are so eager to bury the dead… twice.
Check it out here.

Another person I assume you know if you read this blog is Caitlin Doughty of Ask A Mortician fame. I wrote a guest post on her blog this week about a deathy bit of church architecture called a putridarium. Over there I’ll tell you all about what it is and explain why Italian Catholics are so eager to bury the dead… twice.

Check it out here.

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The Carmelite Monastery of San Ángel

Mexico City, Mexico

I’m currently working on a full piece for Atlas Obscura on theses guys but I couldn’t wait to share the photos I took today. These are naturally occurring mummies on display in the crypt beneath the monastery in San Ángel. The corpses are former parishioners of the neighboring church buried between 1600 and 1800. They were found by accident when troops ransacked the monastery during the Mexican Revolution in 1917.

More to come soon…

All photos by me.

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Anonymous asked: This is probably the most interesting tumblr I have ever seen. Thank you.

Wow, thank you Anon! You just made my day :) 

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Mexico City Photo Set from The Metropolitan Cathedral

Top: Chapel of the relics. The effigy in repose above the altar is Santo Entierro, or Holy Burial, a life-sized depiction of Jesus in the tomb.

Bottom: Chapel of the relics. The bones of St. Vitalis, Martyr, translated from the catacombs of St. Calixtus in Rome, December 13, 1819.

All photos by me.

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Mexico City photo set from Iglesia del la Santisima Trinidad

Two effigies of the passion: Scourged Christ with the cross (above), and Santo Entierro (below)

All photos by me.

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Mexico City, Iglesia Santa Ines 
Virgen Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows)
Photo by me

Mexico City, Iglesia Santa Ines 

Virgen Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows)

Photo by me

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Mexico City photo set from The Tabernacle of the Metropolitan Cathedral

Top to bottom:

The relics of St. Felicitas in an effigy.

The relics of St. Felicitas with milagros (ex voto in thanks for answered prayers).

An effigy of a soul in purgatory.

Santo Entierro (Holy Burial, a life sized effigy of Jesus in the tomb)

All photos by me

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If you read this blog, I assume you know about Morbid Anatomy. Morbid Anatomy is the blog/library/lecture hall/workshop/rapidly expanding cabinet of curiosities of Joanna Ebenstein. She’s been hosting lectures and events from her tiny space in Brooklyn for years but now Morbid Anatomy is becoming a legitimate museum and meeting place for curious people.

HERE is the Kickstarter. 

Personally, I’ve decided to become a founding donor. Here’s why.

Joanna is directly responsible for inspiring me to write about and lecture on relics. See, I’m not an academic by trade- I’m a lighting designer and I never thought in a million years that I could add to the body of knowledge on relics or that anyone would be interested in reading it even if I did. But here we are. And that’s what I love about Morbid Anatomy- it encourages everyone to become a scholar and pursue learning about what they love, even if (and especially if) it seems a little strange. The result is that fields of study that might have otherwise been dismissed or slipped through the cracks are now being revitalized by passionate people coming in with entirely new perspectives. 

That’s how Morbid Anatomy benefits us all, even if you don’t live in New York. It’s an amazing platform and resource for people who are excited to share their passion- whether it’s online, in print or in person. 

The museum leadership is in good hands behind the scenes too. They have an excellent board in place and the project is backed by the Brooklyn Arts Council so they’re the real deal.

If you like what they’re doing, please take a second and bust the piggy bank, check under the couch cushions and see what you’ve got. The $25 level in particular is a pretty sweet mix of affordability and a really cool gift. You get 2 tickets to the museum and a hardcover copy of the beautifully illustrated, 500 page Morbid Anatomy Anthology. 

(Oh, and more relics soon, dear readers. I’m headed to Mexico City on Monday.)

If you read this blog, I assume you know about Morbid Anatomy. Morbid Anatomy is the blog/library/lecture hall/workshop/rapidly expanding cabinet of curiosities of Joanna Ebenstein. She’s been hosting lectures and events from her tiny space in Brooklyn for years but now Morbid Anatomy is becoming a legitimate museum and meeting place for curious people.

HERE is the Kickstarter

Personally, I’ve decided to become a founding donor. Here’s why.

Joanna is directly responsible for inspiring me to write about and lecture on relics. See, I’m not an academic by trade- I’m a lighting designer and I never thought in a million years that I could add to the body of knowledge on relics or that anyone would be interested in reading it even if I did. But here we are. And that’s what I love about Morbid Anatomy- it encourages everyone to become a scholar and pursue learning about what they love, even if (and especially if) it seems a little strange. The result is that fields of study that might have otherwise been dismissed or slipped through the cracks are now being revitalized by passionate people coming in with entirely new perspectives. 

That’s how Morbid Anatomy benefits us all, even if you don’t live in New York. It’s an amazing platform and resource for people who are excited to share their passion- whether it’s online, in print or in person. 

The museum leadership is in good hands behind the scenes too. They have an excellent board in place and the project is backed by the Brooklyn Arts Council so they’re the real deal.

If you like what they’re doing, please take a second and bust the piggy bank, check under the couch cushions and see what you’ve got. The $25 level in particular is a pretty sweet mix of affordability and a really cool gift. You get 2 tickets to the museum and a hardcover copy of the beautifully illustrated, 500 page Morbid Anatomy Anthology. 

(Oh, and more relics soon, dear readers. I’m headed to Mexico City on Monday.)

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The Cadaver Synod: When a Pope’s Corpse Was Put on Trial
The good folks at Atlas Obscura recently asked me about my favorite bit of morbid history for their Morbid Monday feature. I’ve written about the Cadaver Synod before but I couldn’t resist the chance to revisit it and dig into the papal politics of 9th century Rome in the years leading up to the Pornocracy. 
You can read the piece here and if you like it I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of The Bad Popes by E. R. Chamberlin. It’s a fascinating, well-researched look at the most chaotic and corrupt years in church history.

The Cadaver Synod: When a Pope’s Corpse Was Put on Trial

The good folks at Atlas Obscura recently asked me about my favorite bit of morbid history for their Morbid Monday feature. I’ve written about the Cadaver Synod before but I couldn’t resist the chance to revisit it and dig into the papal politics of 9th century Rome in the years leading up to the Pornocracy. 

You can read the piece here and if you like it I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of The Bad Popes by E. R. Chamberlin. It’s a fascinating, well-researched look at the most chaotic and corrupt years in church history.

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Here are a few articles I’ve written for your reading pleasure in the new year:
Documenting the Holy Dead Through Saints’ Relics
A Thief’s Severed Arm and a Count Buried Alive in One Prague Church
Revealing the Hidden History of Paris Through Saints
That last one explains the story behind the fellow above. It’s based on an illustrated lecture I gave in December at the Morbid Anatomy Library. You might have noticed the new “Map of Paris” at the top too- it’s part of the same series so you can navigate the oddities of Paris on your own.
By the way, the Morbid Anatomy Library is soon to be the Morbid Anatomy MUSEUM and they even have a gift shop! So kick em a few bucks if you’ve got it.
Happy 2014, relic hunters!

Here are a few articles I’ve written for your reading pleasure in the new year:

Documenting the Holy Dead Through Saints’ Relics

A Thief’s Severed Arm and a Count Buried Alive in One Prague Church

Revealing the Hidden History of Paris Through Saints

That last one explains the story behind the fellow above. It’s based on an illustrated lecture I gave in December at the Morbid Anatomy Library. You might have noticed the new “Map of Paris” at the top too- it’s part of the same series so you can navigate the oddities of Paris on your own.

By the way, the Morbid Anatomy Library is soon to be the Morbid Anatomy MUSEUM and they even have a gift shop! So kick em a few bucks if you’ve got it.

Happy 2014, relic hunters!

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Bless Thou! Thou Art Translated!

Or How the Relics of St. Helena Wound Up in an Obscure Crypt in Paris

Église Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles

Paris, France

92 Rue St-Denis, 75001; 12pm-7:30pm Monday-Saturday, 9am-12pm Sunday

Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles is just a small parish church. It sits on a grimy street in Les Halles, uncomfortably sandwiched between dozens of porno shops and places to buy knock-offs. It’s not particularly grand but it is old. The little shield sign that designates historic places in Paris only confirms that the church is, in fact, as old as it looks. You won’t find it listed in Frommers, or Lonely Planet, or the Blue Guide or even Secret Paris.

I showed up by chance one weekday morning after visiting St. Eustace. During my visit the morning clouds turned into a full-on downpour and of course my umbrella was back at the apartment. I saw the towers of Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles and thought I’d give it a shot.

It was dark and locked. I considered running down the street to a cafe and waiting out the rain with bad coffee but before I could turn away, a man stopped me. I thought he was going to ask for money but instead he said, “You’re here to see the relics?”

I was shocked, my research hadn’t turned up any mention of relics here. But being “here to see the relics” pretty much describes most vacations for me. Of course I said yes.

He pulled out a ring of keys, unlocked the front door and led me to a little side door under the altar.

“Here is the crypt.”

And just like that he left. I found myself alone with the relics of not just any old martyr from antiquity, but of St. Helena. How did a Roman Empress wind up here?

Ÿ——— 

If you’re interested in relics, you’re probably well aware of St. Helena, the woman credited with spreading Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Though she raised her only child, Constantine the Great, at the court of the notorious martyr-maker, Diocletian, she converted to Christianity at the age of 60. In her 70s she traveled to the Holy Land. With unfettered access to the imperial treasury, she set about restoring old churches, building new ones, founding monasteries and ripping down pagan temples.

During one of these temple-removals she came across her most famous discovery: the True Cross, which is still venerated today in reliquaries all over the world (notably in Santa Croce in Rome which was built around her imperial palace). She gathered nails from the crucifixion, the rope Jesus was tied with, Jesus’ tunic, and pieces of his tomb. She took her treasures back to Rome.

Helena died in Rome in 330. She was originally buried in a mausoleum you can still visit today. It’s right off the Berardi train stop. Of course now it’s empty. As is her elaborate sarcophagus in the Vatican Museum. So where are the relics of the first relic hunter?

To answer that, let’s start back at the Carolingian period again. As I mentioned in the last blog post on St. Genevieve, this was a time of consolidation and greater conformity within religious orders. Practically speaking, this translated into more monks traveling to Rome. Some of those monks noticed that Rome had an awful lot of priceless saint’s relics lying around and no one was overly particular about documenting exactly what was where or even locking them down (as is sometimes still the case). During this time, a relic could still bring prestige to a monastery and support a pilgrimage industry in a small town, not to mention the miracles it could work. Thus, stories of furta sacra, or holy theft, began springing up all over Europe.

What makes holy theft different from plain old theft is in part the belief that the relics have some say in where they rest. The relics of St. John Chrysostom, for example, could not be moved by any man or animal until the ancestor of the saint’s persecutor wrote St. John a letter apologizing for his persecution. St. Johns relics then allowed the translation, which is what the formal process of moving a relic is called.

The body of St. Helena must have wanted to come to France. A monk named Theogisus returned to his monastery in Hautvillers on February 7th, 840 carrying a portion of her body he stole from her tomb in Rome. Upon finding out about the theft, the Pope didn’t order the return since St. Helena had clearly consented. (The rest of her body was later enshrined in Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome in 1140 where you can still find it in an urn.)

From 840 to 1789 this piece of St. Helena stayed in the monastery at Hautvillers. While somewhat remote, it wasn’t a bad place for an empress since it was here Dom Perignon perfected champagne. When the French Revolution broke out the monastery was destroyed but the cellarer, Dom Grossard was able to hide the relics so they wouldn’t be desecrated like those of St. Genevieve.

By the mid 1800s it was safe to venerate relics in France again but Dom Grossard was now quite old. He wanted to ensure that after his death the relics of St. Helena would continue to be venerated and draw pilgrims. Fortunately, the last abbot of the monastery at Hautvillers was now Bishop of Paris. The two men arranged for the relics to be translated to a church were the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre were reconvening after being suppressed during the Revolution. The Knights took St. Helena as their patron, so it was fitting she would rest in their church, Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles, in the middle of Paris.

These days, the church and the Knights are separate entities, but the relics remain in the church, largely unknown to Parisians, let alone tourists. While the relics seem to trace directly back to Helena’s death in Rome, the complete story is never so simple. Scammers, opportunists, and wishful thinkers have plagued the history of relics. This was particularly true in the days of furta sacra. Plenty of unscrupulous Roman merchants were eager to offer deals on the holy dead to traveling monks hesitant to raid the churches and catacombs themselves.

This, combined with the difficulty of communicating over long distances and the fact that bodies were divided into infinitely smaller pieces helps explain why so many saints have duplicate body parts. Helena has a whole second body, which turned up in Constantinople. Those relics were partially translated to Venice in 1204 despite the fact that she was apparently already resting in Rome and Hautvillers by then. To this day Trier and Rome both still claim to possess her head.

In the past, it was hard to prove the absolute legitimacy of a relic. St. Helena initially discovered three crosses so she had a dying woman brought in to touch each one. After one cured her, Helena pronounced it the True Cross. According to some reports, Theogisus stepped into boiling water without being burned to prove the body he brought back was really St. Helena’s. Today we have carbon dating, DNA analysis and a host of other verification tools at our disposal yet there’s little interest in using these to trace the bodies of the holy dead, even among their most ardent defenders. But it isn’t simply a case of the faithful ignoring evidence that the objects in their shines might be fakes. Many Catholic theologians are aware of the diaspora of relics but use a test similar to the one that’s been used since Helena’s time: If it looks like a relic and performs like a relic (by drawing in the faithful and working miracles) then for all intents and purposes, it’s relic.

 

Sources

"A City Of Saints: The Forgotten Reliquaries Of Paris." Road to Emmaus, Vol. VII No. 2 (25). N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_25/A_CITY_OF_SAINTS.pdf>.

Geary, Patrick J. Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.

Harbus, A. Helena of Britain in Medieval Legend. Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2002. Print.

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If it Wasn’t for Me, You’d All be Speaking Hunic

Saint-Etienne-du-Mont

Paris, France

Rue de la Montagne Ste. Geneviève, 75005; 8:45am-7:45pm Tuesday-Sunday, closed from 12pm-2pm Saturdays and Sundays

Lately I’ve been focusing on female saints from the Middle Ages. These women were looking for a way to be both holy and female during a time when the female body was assumed to be an inherent source of evil. So to express their religiosity, they brought their (presumably sinful) bodies to the brink of death, without stepping over the line and committing suicide. They talked directly to God through mystical experiences because they were cloistered away from the majority of church functions. Without a way to participate in their religion, they devised a path to holiness that was completely contained within themselves.

 

But it wasn’t always like that. One of the radical tenets of the early Christian church was the inclusion of women and that sentiment carried through early Catholicism. Before the Carolingian rulers imposed stricter regulations on religious orders, holy women were expected to have a public role. They could take on high-profile leadership positions in their communities and even operate as international diplomats, petitioning kings for peace. This is the world of St. Genevieve, who was born some time around 420.

 

St. Genevieve is the patroness of Paris. Her image is a bit less striking than the decapitated patron St. Denis, but if you look for her, you’ll find her in the architecture and stained glass of the city as well. And who better to represent Paris? You can learn an incredible amount about the history of the city just by following her life and relics.

 

Genevieve spent most of her life as a nun in Paris. She took at active role around the city to decidedly mixed results at first. Some thought she was a saint, others a bit of a nut (or even wanted her killed, which is what you did with nutty women back in the day). All this changed when Attila and his Huns began marching straight for Paris. People panicked and threatened to flee but Genevieve convinced them to stay and pray. Miraculously, Attila took a turn for Orléans. (To their credit, the people of Orléans don’t seem to hold this against Genevieve.) Later, she took an even more active role- passing through enemy lines during a siege to deliver food and successfully bargaining with kings to show mercy and release prisoners of war.

 

After her death she was buried in the abbey Clovis built for her in Paris. From there, like the bodies of most saints, she certainly stayed active. In 847 the Vikings sacked her abbey, which was rebuilt in 1177 after her relics stopped a plague of ergot poisoning in 1129. In 1222, the pope decided that the abbey was too small to accommodate all the pilgrims and the site required a full church. Work began on St. Ètienne-du-Mont, the future home of St. Genevieve’s relics, though originally named for and dedicated to St. Stephen. With the establishment of the Sorbonne nearby in 1257, the population in the Latin Quarter grew rapidly, so they just kept adding on to the church. It was finally completed in 1537.

 

Skip to 1744 when Louis XV becomes seriously ill during the War of Austrian Succession. He vows that if he recovers, he’ll build a church worthy of the patroness of Paris to replace her original abbey (which by now is falling apart). He recovers and makes good on his promise. Work begins on a building just across the street from St. Ètienne-du-Mont- the building that’s now known as the Pantheon. The grand church is completed in 1790, just in time for the French Revolution. The following year it secularizes, as does St. Ètienne-du-Mont, which becomes the Temple of Filial Piety. In 1793 St. Genevieve’s relics are publically burnt at the Place de Grève. By 1801 St. Ètienne-du-Mont is restored to the Catholic Church. What’s left of St. Genevieve’s relics, some dust and the stone her coffin rested on, are enshrined in their current location there. The Pantheon flips back and forth between the church and state a few more times before finally settling as a secular crypt for French luminaries in 1885.

 

Both buildings are worth visiting today. Over at the Pantheon you can see the tombs of Voltaire, Rousseau, Zola, Hugo, Monnet, Dumas and the Curies (just to name a few) as well as an exact replica of Foucault’s pendulum. Across the street at St. Ètienne-du-Mont, you can visit the remaining relics of St. Genevieve as well as the tombs of Pascal and Racine. When you walk in, the fist thing you’ll notice is the magnificent double spiral staircase carved in stone. This architectural feature is called a jubé and it’s the very last of its kind in Paris.

  

There’s one additional bit of lore about St. Ètienne-du-Mont that you won’t find in the guidebooks but it’s too good to overlook. On January 3rd, 1857, the Archbishop of Paris, Marie Dominique Auguste Sibour, was assassinated here.

  

Three years earlier, Pope Pius IX issued a papal bull that formally defined the Church’s views on the Immaculate Conception. Archbishop Sibour upheld the bull and promoted it in Paris. A ne’er-do-well priest named Jean-Louis Verger saw this as the Archbishop promoting idolatry and stabbed him to death as he lead a novena to St. Genevieve. Verger shouted, “Down with the Goddess!” as he killed the Archbishop, a possible reference to both the saint and his stance on the Immaculate Conception.

 

A former seminarian at St. Sulpice known as Eliphas Lévi supposedly witnessed the bloody incident; though it’s anyone’s guess what brought him to the church that day (or if he was telling the truth about being there in the first place). He had become a well-known Occultist after leaving the seminary. He later reported that Verger approached him before the assassination and asked for a book of spells called Honorius. There, Verger believed he would find a spell powerful enough to conjure the devil. Lévi said he refused.

 

Verger, for his part, freely admitted to murdering the archbishop and believed he would not be found guilty. He was, in fact, found guilty the very day of his trial. Ever confident, he was certain the Emperor Napoleon III would pardon him. He didn’t and Verger was dead by the end of the month.

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So, where on Earth have I been lately&#8230; 
Well, Paris for one. I happened to wander into Notre Dame right when it reopened after a right wing commentator shot himself in the head on the altar. His suicide was (at least in part) over the legalization of gay marriage in France. That week the protests against the new law came to a head and resulted in a night of riots. Needless to say, some churches, particularly those off the beaten tourist path (and allied with the right, of course) were feeling a little skeptical of a young American toting a camera. But I was still able to get some really great photos and information on the embalmed heart of the dauphin, the tomb of St. Genevieve, and little-known crypt of St. Helen (for all you relic hipsters out there who prefer the obscure stuff). More on that to come.
I&#8217;ve also been posting over on Atlas Obscura. If you&#8217;re not already hep to that, go there now. You&#8217;ll love it. I&#8217;ve been adding some of my favorite shrines to their collection of weird and wonderful places. I also wrote a feature for them on how I got into relics and why researching them is awesome.
Last but certainly not least, I&#8217;ve been putting together the Uncommon Corpse Cabaret for Death Salon LA with the illustrious Megan Rosenbloom (aka @libraryatnight). It takes place October 18th at the Bootleg Theatre and features musical acts Jill Tracy and Adam Arcuragi. You can catch me during the daytime at the panel discussion &#8220;Death and the Feminine&#8221; where I&#8217;ll be ruminating on female saints of the Middle Ages and their obsession with destroying their bodies. Here&#8217;s an interview I did for the Death Salon website.

So, where on Earth have I been lately… 

Well, Paris for one. I happened to wander into Notre Dame right when it reopened after a right wing commentator shot himself in the head on the altar. His suicide was (at least in part) over the legalization of gay marriage in France. That week the protests against the new law came to a head and resulted in a night of riots. Needless to say, some churches, particularly those off the beaten tourist path (and allied with the right, of course) were feeling a little skeptical of a young American toting a camera. But I was still able to get some really great photos and information on the embalmed heart of the dauphin, the tomb of St. Genevieve, and little-known crypt of St. Helen (for all you relic hipsters out there who prefer the obscure stuff). More on that to come.

I’ve also been posting over on Atlas Obscura. If you’re not already hep to that, go there now. You’ll love it. I’ve been adding some of my favorite shrines to their collection of weird and wonderful places. I also wrote a feature for them on how I got into relics and why researching them is awesome.

Last but certainly not least, I’ve been putting together the Uncommon Corpse Cabaret for Death Salon LA with the illustrious Megan Rosenbloom (aka @libraryatnight). It takes place October 18th at the Bootleg Theatre and features musical acts Jill Tracy and Adam Arcuragi. You can catch me during the daytime at the panel discussion “Death and the Feminine” where I’ll be ruminating on female saints of the Middle Ages and their obsession with destroying their bodies. Here’s an interview I did for the Death Salon website.

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Over on Twitter, @theteasemaid, aka Carla Valentine asked if she could feature me on her blog. Of course I said yes, I’m a huge fan of her work. 

You see, Carla is not only a curator at Bart’s Pathology Museum. She also has a little side project called Sacred Tarts, a pop-up shop featuring incredible Catholic-themed desserts. And the only thing I love more than saints is sweets.

So I took the opportunity make my own amateur sacred tart. It’s a rose-flavored St. Rose of Lima cake. You might remember St. Rose from part two of the mortification series. As a young girl she was so ashamed of her vanity she nailed a crown of roses to her head. My nails are painted marzipan. After this I might need a good long fast.

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