The incorrupt body of Blessed Anna Maria Taigi, wax portraiture over bone, San Crisogono, Rome. (All photos: Elizabeth Harper)

The Italian nun grimaced at my camera, reviewing the photo that she had just snapped of me. We had to take another, she explained. The shriveled corpse to my left was beautiful. My face had room for improvement.

So it goes in the world of the incorrupt, a group of saints whose bodies supposedly won’t decompose. This particular corpse belonged to St. Paula Frassinetti, displayed at the Convent of St. Dorotea in Rome. In the popular imagination, they’re like sleeping beauties, but Paula, who’s been dead for 133 years, is shriveled and brown inside her crystal casket. This paradox is what makes the incorrupt fascinating. 

The wax effigy of St. Carlo da Sezze. His relics are enshrined under the altar behind his effigy, San Francesco d’Assisi a Ripa Grande, Rome.

Most people think incorruptibility is permanent, but another incorrupt saint, Francesca Romana, disabuses that notion. She’s little more than a skeleton dressed in a nun’s habit. Francesca was deemed incorrupt a few months after her death in 1440. When her tomb was reopened two centuries later, she was nothing but bone. According to Heather Pringle, who investigated research conducted by a team of pathologists from the University of Pisa, opening a tomb can disrupt the microclimates that leads to spontaneous preservation, so even the body of a saint can decompose after it’s discovered.

The incorrupt body of St. Robert Bellarmine, Sant’Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio, Rome.

This is surprisingly unproblematic for believers. The Church doesn’t count incorruptibility as an official Vatican-approved miracle anymore. It’s more like a favorable, if fading, sign from God.

Incorruptibility also isn’t binary, something you either are or aren’t. It can affect just one body part, lending extra significance to a heart, a tongue or hand. There are shades and degrees within the ranks of the incorrupt that make their numbers impossible to tally. The best account comes from Joan Carroll Cruz, a housewife who took it upon herself to research and count every incorrupt saint. Though secular researchers find her too credulous, her book published in 1977, The Incorruptibles, remains the one of the most complete lists available.

The incorrupt body of St. Camillus de Lellis. His skeleton is not in the effigy, but housed in a compartment underneath, La Maddalena, Rome.

The relics of St Wittoria, the skeleton of a catacomb martyr, covered in gauze and dressed. Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome. 

Adding to the confusion around incorrupt saints are the ones who seem perfect, but in fact are too good to be true. St. Victoria, a fragmented skeleton, was hauled out of the Roman catacombs at the mere suggestion she might be a martyr. In her lifetime, she would not recognize her name, story, even post-postmortem outfit changes: Those were pieced together or invented entirely by the Church.

The tomb of St. Cecilia, the first incorrupt saint. This famous effigy depicts the position her body was found in. Note the wound in her neck from her martyrdom., Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome.

On the opposite bank of the Tiber, the incorrupt body of Blessed Anna Maria Taigi rests in the church of San Crisogono. From afar she looks ideally incorrupt but visitors who get close can see that the wrinkles in her face are formed in wax. A few dozen black hairs reach out from her blonde curls, signaling something more macabre underneath. She, too, is a skeleton.

The incorrupt body of St. Francesca Romana, Santa Francesca Romana, also called Santa Maria Nova, Rome.

It’s tempting to find these lapses in realism and historical provenance and find satisfaction in that detective work. But the preservation of the incorrupt is often meant to be noticed. The sacristan, an officer in charge of overseeing Anna Maria’s sacred relics (what he sweetly called her “little old lady things”) explained that the wax on her isn’t designed to trick people. It’s to preserve an honest impression of her the moment she was discovered in her grave.

The relics of St. Giovanni da Triora Santa Maria, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome.

The incorrupt body of St. Paula Frassinetti, Convento di Santa Dorotea, Rome.

The incorrupt body of St. Pope Pius V, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.

Of course there are other, more abstract ways to preserve a body’s likeness, ones less likely to lead to accusations of trickery. St. Paula was given a bath in carbolic acid to help preserve her. Rome has several incorrupt men encased in silver, including Pope St. Pius V and St. Vincent Pallotti, as well as two women in white marble: St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Cecelia. As with Anna Maria Taigi, with scant information provided by the shrines, it’s difficult to know where the incorrupt end and where the effigies begin.

The wax effigy and relics of St. Victoria, the skeleton of a catacomb martyr with cutaways to show her relics. Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.

Yet the mystery is part of how the incorrupt draw us in with their uncanny sleeping faces, as if the twins Hypnos and Thanatos were playing tricks by switching places. They are somehow both a memento mori and the opposite of the anonymous grinning skull. We will all die, but maybe, if we’re very good, we can linger in this world.

The incorrupt arm of St. Francis Xavier, Il Gesu, Rome.