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

By Anneli Rufus

Marlowe & Company, NY, 1999, 320 pp., paperback, $14.95.

Reviewed by Douglas Chapman

Anneli Rufus often collaborates with Kristan Lawson to produce books such as America Off the Wall: The West Coast, Goddess Sites: Europe, and Europe Off the Wall. The present effort, a solo one, entitled Magnificent Corpses, is a travelogue about Christian relics (portions of dead holy people), which relates their stories and illuminates their meanings past and present.

Despite Rufus' Jewish religious upbringing, she early on found the veneration of relics to be fascinating. The saints' lives and deaths could be amazing and/or appalling. The doings of saints were often connected to cases of weird phenomena, and some of these people exhibited unusual traits once deceased; there are instances where some reportedly did not rot, or bled for years, or smelled really good.

The saints in her book created stirs when alive, and are remembered long after. There is a historical legend about Saint Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins -- all of whom were reportedly martyred. But the stories vary about her life and her death. One of the most popular sets her life in third century Britain. There are a number of others. Oddly, the earliest accounts only mention 11 virgins.

The legends are not the only impressive things. Saint Anthony of Padua's relics reside at the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy. Relics connected with his eloquence -- powerful enough to cause social change -- are displayed there. Rufus comments, "The effect is completely terrifying."

Much of St. Francis Xavier is stationed at Il Gesu in Rome, Italy. In life, he was very ambitious; the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak when he endeavored to convert China to Christianity during the 1500s. He had barely arrived there when illness killed him. But, according to the "accepted" accounts, he was incorrupt. Eventually, because of requests for his relics from many churches, his body was taken apart. Rufus writes, "It is unpleasant to think that each new surgery spurted blood."

Saints alive! And deceased. Magnificent Corpses offers them both ways. Travelers will be dead set on going to Europe after reading it.