Cover image for Magnificent corpses : searching through Europe for St. Peter's head, St. Chiara's heart, St. Stephen's hand, and other saints' relics
Magnificent corpses : searching through Europe for St. Peter's head, St. Chiara's heart, St. Stephen's hand, and other saints' relics
Rufus, Anneli S.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Marlowe, [1999]

Physical Description:
ix, 245 pages ; 21 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BX2333 .R84 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
BX2333 .R84 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



Holy relics -- the bodily remains of saints and other sacred figures -- were for centuries the most revered objects in the Western world, at center-stage in Europe's great churches and cathedrals. Today some relics have been shunted to side chapels and dark crypts, yet many continue to draw prayerful pilgrims, as they have for centuries, seeking solace, inspiration, and signs of miracles. In Magnificent Corpses, Anneli Rufus recounts her visits to 18 of Europe's most significant relics. With an engaging mix of history and personal narrative, Rufus tells their secret stories and, along the way, revisits with a fresh eye the compelling accounts of the saints whose physical bodies the relics represent.

Author Notes

Anneli Rufus, a prize-winning, critically acclaimed writer, is the author of The World Holiday Book. She lives in Berkeley, CA.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Saintly relics are a captivating, if sometimes gruesome, glimpse at the piety of the past. The preserved remnants of the bones, flesh, and clothing of holy men and women are scattered throughout the churches of Europe and attract pilgrims and tourists by the thousands every year. Travel writer Rufus grew up Jewish, yet the lives of the saints have intrigued her since her early childhood. With an often irreverent perspective, she takes us on a tour of some of the more interesting sites of saints still preserved in Europe. There are the famous and much beloved, such as St. Dominic and St. Anthony of Padua, alongside lesser known virgins, such as St. Gemma Galgani. The shrines she visits range from vast cathedrals in large cities to simple parish churches in rural villages. Although Rufus lacks sympathy for medieval piety or faith, her outsider perspective casts some accurate and interesting judgments on the way these saints chose to live, as she presents an often unvisited side of Europe with fascination, wonder, and awe. --Michael Spinella

Publisher's Weekly Review

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 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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This delightful personal narrative of visits to 18 of Europe's famous relics includes descriptions of the relics in question and of the saints behind them, contemporary pilgrims and their appearance, and reflections on the relicsÄor pseudo-relicsÄand their continued attraction. Journalist Rufus's approach is not pious but very realistic, juxtaposing the incongruities of present and past: pages torn from a comic bookÄan Italian one of the Japanese manga varietyÄare set against the story of St. Gemma Galgani; a pilgrim who looks ill reminds Rufus of Gemma's illness. (She died in 1903 of tuberculosis.) Each visit to the site of a relicÄin Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, France, Denmark, and EnglandÄprovides a slice-of-life sketch and makes for engaging casual reading. Recommended for armchair travelers, readers interested in the saints, and those studying modern pilgrims.ÄCarolyn M. Craft, Longwood Coll., Farmville, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.