Just in time for Bastille Day, here’s my latest piece on a crypt full of blood and bones in Paris. Special thanks to Marie-Christine Pénin who created the wonderful Tombes et Sepultures website. She graciously allowed me to use her photos (including the one above). The crypt is only open for one tour a week and when I visited I somehow wound up on a tour for nuns. (I only stuck out a little bit…) I didn’t feel right taking pictures even though they were allowed so I don’t have my own to share this time.
Wanna know who these ladies are? Or maybe what’s up with that pile of bodies and torture devices in the background?
Follow me on Facebook and I’ll tell you. Plus you’ll get a random assortment of other pictures, thoughts, and news items.
This post might activate your sweet tooth or put you off dessert forever. It really depends on how you feel about eating the tears, breasts, bones and eyes of the saints (metaphorically of course).
These are my top ten favorite desserts created specifically for saints’ feast days. Check them all out here.
If you like it, you should also check out my friend (and fellow Death Salon board member’s) blog Nourishing Death. She looks at relationship between food, death rituals and culture. It’s really fascinating.
Everybody loves the Sedlec Ossuary (heck, my avatar is the sidewalk there) but maybe it’s time to switch it up. Let’s go to Brno, your new deathstination in the Czech Republic!
They have this sweet skeleton door, a crypt full of mummified monks, and the second largest ossuary in Europe outside of the Paris catacombs. Read my article on it over at Atlas Obscura.
The afterlife has been one long journey for Saint Vibiana
An All the Saints You Should Know shout out from Los Angeles Magazine! How cool is that? And some nice info in St. Vibiana to boot!
You know what I love about Rome? No matter how much you think you know, no matter how much you research, there’s always something else to see at the shrines. So there’s always another reason to go back.
But you have to ask. Knowing exactly what you want to see is the key to finding the most amazing things (as is chatting up a nice sacristan or custodian with a set of keys). For example, I took the top two photos of St. Camillus de Lellis at Santa Maria Maddalena. I even talked to a sacristan there and viewed St. Camillus’ heart and rooms at the monastery next door.
But clearly I didn’t ask all the right questions (some sacristans are more forthcoming than others). I thought the relics were embedded in the wax figure but thanks to The Camillians Facebook page, I found out I was totally wrong. Had I only asked I could have seen his skeleton, stored in a compartment under his effigy. The bottom photo shows what I missed (courtesy of The Camillians on Facebook).
Filing away for next time…
Let’s talk about incorrupt corpses. They always look a little… off… right?
I know. So I wrote a piece about them. Get the real deal on saints that won’t rot away over at The Order of the Good Death.
One of the best things that’s happened to me within the past year is getting the opportunity to meet people who talk about, write about or make things about death. On the whole, they’re some of the nicest and most delightfully strange people I’ve ever met. They’ve pushed me to keep writing. So far I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with the folks at Atlas Obscura, Morbid Anatomy, and Death Salon. Personally I’ve found that dealing with death can really add to one’s enjoyment of life.
That’s why I’m so pleased to say that I’m actively collaborating with Caitlin Doughty (of Ask a Mortician fame) as a member of The Order of the Good Death. Caitlin is an inspiration, particularly in terms of getting real about death. Her experience caring for the dead and grieving alike has inspired me to look at the larger cultural and psychological implications of relics, incorrupt bodies and saints. She’s also way funnier than your average mortician. She doesn’t even mind if I use phrases like “corpse toilets" on her blog.
So look for more Order of the Good Death cross-posts in the future and check out some of the other members’ work. It’s a group I’m honored to be a part of. (Plus we sound like a cool purgatorial society and you know how much I love those.)
(Photo of Cardinal Josepho Renato’s tomb in Sant’Agostino by me.)
Well, I never thought I would retell this particular story on the blog, but I stumbled on an interesting tale. So in the interest of documenting Catholic lore, let me tell you about the time my skirt blew up over my head in the Piazza del Gesù, right outside of the church.
Just to be clear, it was nothing like this.
Instead, despite my frantic grasping, one of my highly un-sexy “church skirts” blew up in front of commuters, policemen, tour groups and children alike. I was not wearing what I would call my “best” underwear. It was week three of my trip to Rome so it was more like 19th in the line of underwear succession. The only silver lining to this story is that at least my skirt blew up high enough to cover my face.
As it turns out, that particular piazza is notoriously windy. It’s so windy that the French writer, Stendhal, recorded an anecdote he heard about it. Here it is in English, as mentioned in Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Volume VIII, 1871.
The same church of the Jesuits has a bad name of long standing: nearly fifty years ago a witty French writer tells a story which he heard at Rome in orthodox days. The devil and the wind were taking a walk, and came to the Jesuit’s church. “Oh,” quoth the former, “Ive a little business to look after in here: do wait for me a moment;” and stepped into the church. The devil never came out, and the wind is waiting for him still on the breezy site near the Capitol.
Now after being raised by a Jesuit and given a good Jesuit education, Stendhal never missed an opportunity to to make a jab at their expense. Of course he thought the devil would be eternally busy at Il Gesù.
But the wind does seem to wait there, taking advantage of women in skirts and people with umbrellas as if to impress the devil should he walk out of the church at any moment.
So stick it to the wind. When you visit Il Gesù, wear pants.
Sant’Andrea al Quirinale
Plenty of tour groups hit up Sant’Andrea al Quinnale. They go see what I like to think of as the great Baroque dance-off: two rival architects, two masterful jewel-like churches, and two wildly different styles just a few blocks apart. Bernini pops and locks here at Sant’Andrea while Borromini vogues at San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. Taken together, they make an amazing architectural and artistic experience.
But here’s the bummer- those tour groups don’t get to see the best part of Sant’Andrea. Sure they all get to see the gilded dome and the marble putti poking their little heads out, but they miss the rooms of St. Stanislaus Kostka, accessible up a staircase to the right if there’s a sacristan on duty.
The life-sized marble effigy of St. Stanislaus can catch you off guard when you walk in. The rooms, while still Baroque, are softer and more personal, especially if you compare them to the church downstairs. This makes the sculpture even more shocking. Stanislaus is depicted as a young Jesuit novice of 18, moments away from death. He died after coming down with a fever and you can almost see the sweat beading up on the stone. The bilious colors of marble are typical of polychrome funerary work in Rome- they’re purposefully sickly and unsettling. Sometimes this particular pose is called trepasso, literally the Italian word for transition. It shows a moment of ecstasy between life and death. It was a favorite of Bernini’s so it’s fitting that this example by Le Gros wound up in his best church.
Since there’s no barrier around the piece, you really get the sense that you’re in the room with the saint and you can examine the sculpture closely. In one hand he holds a small, framed image of the Virgin Mary, in the other a real rosary. Above his head you can see where the painting’s frame has been curiously notched out to accommodate the sculpture which was installed first. Some of his relics and belongings are displayed in a case to the left. It’s one of those rooms that’s so intimate, you feel the need to tiptoe even if there’s no one else there.
Downstairs you can see his relics in a lapis urn, similar to the ones used by fellow Jesuits at Il Gesu.
(All photos by me.)
When I was in Rome I went to see the big, sparkly Baroque light show (yes, light show) at the incredible church of Il Gesu. It didn’t disappoint. Spoiler alert: there’s a hidden bejeweled statue.
Find out what it has to do with the Kool-Aid Man, Pink Floyd and stomping on dudes here.
I’ve covered Santo Stefano Rotondo here before but I love revisiting places. Especially when it means I can share more photos of the church’s biggest draw- the infamous martyr murals. (The very same ones that horrified Charles Dickens.)
Each mural is accompanied by a Latin subtitle. It lists the Emperor who ordered the torture (hi Diocletian), a short description of the torture, and sometimes the name of the martyr who died that way. There are helpful letters in each fresco so you can easily match the figures to the description. If you sit there and translate all the legible subtitles, it starts to read a little bit like the lyrics to People Who Died by The Jim Carroll Band.
The murals themselves are overwhelming when taken as a group. They cover every single wall and are about 6’ wide by 8’ tall. The figures seem to wander from frame to frame, all part of the same nightmarish landscape. A method of torture in the background of one fresco becomes the foreground elsewhere as if it’s just another scene in a horror movie’s tracking shot. Some scenes are chaotic bloodbaths. Others are calm acts of carefully allotted violence. It’s hard to say which is more disturbing.
The colors have faded over the years and some pieces of plaster have chipped away but a massive restoration project is underway. Last time I was there they were just setting up scaffolding. This time there was a team of preservationists at work with several frescos finished. I can only imagine the impact the church will have when every image is clear, complete with fresh strokes of vibrant red blood.
This is me with the incorrupt body of St. Paula Frassinetti. Now normally I wouldn’t dream of taking a selfie with a corpse but the nun who showed me her body was the nicest lady in the world. She was so enthusiastic when I asked if I could take photos that she insisted on taking a photo of me with St. Paula! There is no way I can say no to a nice nun…
I’m working on a blog post on incorruptible saints but until then, like my All the Saints You Should Know page on Facebook for outtakes and B-sides from my trip to Rome. I’m posting a lot of smaller one-off photos and anecdotes there.
On Sunday, I took a day away from saints to research the life of a secular martyr in Rome- a 22-year-old woman who was executed by Pope Clement VIII for masterminding the murder of her perverse, abusive (and very wealthy) father.
Read the whole story of Ms. Beatrice Cenci here. And if you’re in Rome, definitely visit the Criminological Museum where I gathered research and took the photo above. It’s one of the city’s most overlooked gems.
Today at Santa Maria in Trastevere, I saw this bust of a young man above a funeral monument. He’s wearing a tabard, like a knight. Below him was a carved panel with the armor and shield of a Roman soldier. Above him angels sighed on a cornice.
The monument is in a prime location just to the left of the high altar in one of Rome’s most beautiful basilicas.
Not bad for the bastard son of a cardinal who was executed for kidnapping and rape.
His name was Roberto Altemps. He was twenty when he died and frankly it’s astonishing that he was punished at all. He died in 1586- a time when the harshest punishment for nobleman-rapist was usually marriage. But Pope Sixtus V decided to make an example of him (though not for the reason one might hope). Sixtus was a member of the Peretti family and Roberto was married to a member of the rival Orsini family. So even though he was caught in the act of raping Ms. Lulla Frangipane, he was tried and convicted of adultery instead.
The Latin epitaph below his bust puts it all rather mildly, noting that he was “extinguished too soon”. The reason he was still allowed such a dignified burial is probably best explained by a photo of his family’s private chapel, located on the other side of his monument.
Today when the sunlight was coming through the window, grazing Roberto Altemp’s monument in the most attractive way, I found that I wasn’t the only tourist taking photographs of him. It struck me how the art in so many churches plasters over history with a new, decorative facade. It all seems beautiful and spiritual because of the context (and much of it is) but in reality the temporal seeps in and good sometimes shares artistic media with evil.
A Surprising Pair: The Tombstones of Cardinal Hosius and Cardinal Altemps’ Son, Roberto, in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome by Grazyna Jurkowlaniec
(All photos by me)