Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Aug. 14 2015 11:10 AM

Photographing the Real Bodies of Incorrupt Saints

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

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, the incorrupt are 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 lead 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, 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 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 see 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.
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Aug. 13 2015 4:49 PM

The Grafitti-Covered Ruins of the Miami Marine Stadium 

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Built in 1963, the Miami Marine Stadium took advantage of a beautiful view of downtown Miami and a passing speedboat trend. Now the world's first boat racing stadium is an abandoned maze of vandalized cement. 

When the Miami Marine Stadium opened, it seemed like a great fit for a seaside city that already had a strong relationship with boats and water sports. Despite the death of one of the speedboat racers, James Tapp, on opening day of the park in December of 1963—surely a bad omen—the stadium thrived for decades as the world's first and only stadium custom-built to view motorboat races. The venue also hosted concerts, boxing events, and anything else that would pack the more than 6,000 wooden seats beneath the broad cement shade. Unfortunately, the stadium was declared unsafe in 1992 after it was damaged by Hurricane Andrew and the site was left to rot. 

Of course the open-air seating was nearly impossible to seal off to trespassers, and the empty halls and cement walls quickly became completely covered in thick layers of graffiti. The wooden seats were marked up, destroyed, or ravaged by the elements, and now the venue looks closer to a post-apocalyptic wasteland than a boat racing center for family fun.

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Aug. 12 2015 2:57 PM

A Man-Made, All-Natural Bridge of Roots

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Extending over the Indonesian Batang Bayang River, the slowly growing Jembatan Akar root bridge is made entirely out of the naturally growing roots of two banyan trees that have been slowly cultivated to knit into a walkable span.

The span (Jembatan Akar means "root bridge") was first conceived of in 1890 by a local teacher named Pakih Sohan, who wanted his students from a village across the river to have an easier time getting to his classes. To start the bridge, he put a bamboo frame in place and began wrapping the ever-growing aerial roots of the large banyan trees on either side of the water along the frame. Ever so slowly, the bridge began to take shape.

The project took 26 years of carefully tended growth to become sturdy enough to support anyone. The 100-foot span has since been shored up and reinforced with wooden planks and metal cables as well as becoming stronger year after year as the massive roots of the still-living trees continue to grow. Guide lines have also been added to provide additional support for visitors.     

Unfortunately the original creator of the bridge is no longer alive to see what has grown from his simple idea, but thousands of visitors and commuters each year have him to thank for creating one of the most curious bridges in the world.

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Aug. 11 2015 1:16 PM

Manhattan’s Smallest Island

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Barely poking out of the East River off the coast of Manhattan is tiny U Thant Island, a hardly noticeable mound of greenery. What looks like metal scaffolding rising from its base is actually a set of Buddhist monuments.

That the little islet is there at all is due to one of New York's many subway tunnels. Officially named "Belmont Island," U Thant didn't exist until the late 19th century, when a trolley tunnel was dug beneath the East River to connect Manhattan with Queens. As dirt and rock from the tunnel's construction built up on a pre-existing reef beneath the surface, the island slowly began to emerge above the water level. By the end of the tunnel's construction, a new landmass was born.

Initially the freshly born land was named after the financier who finished the tunnel, August Belmont Jr. In 1977 a Buddhist group known as Peace Meditation at the United Nations rented control of the island from the city and unofficially renamed it after former United Nations Secretary General U Thant, building a skeletal metal arch adorned with mementos of the leader. A sign was also placed on the island heralding its new name, ensuring that it would stick in the decades to come.

Today the island is off-limits, but eagle-eyed sightseers can view it from shore, or pass beneath it on the 7 train that now operates in the old tunnel.

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Aug. 10 2015 1:45 PM

The Holy Monastery of St. Nicholas of the Cats Solved a Snake Problem With Felines

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

When a plague of snakes almost prevented the building of what is now known as the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats, the titular felines were shipped in to save the day. 

Construction originally began on the monastery in 327 CE on the island of Cyprus under the patronage of Saint Helena. As legend has it, a terrible drought afflicted the island during this time, allowing countless venomous snakes to proliferate, driving off not only the builders of the monastery, but even island locals.

Helena's solution to the infestation was to fight snakes with cats, and she had 1,000 of the furry killers shipped to the island from Persia and Egypt. Soon the savior had trained the felines to react to two bells: one signaling feeding time, and the other signaling snake hunting time. After battles that reportedly left the cats missing eyes and noses, the snakes were all but eradicated from the island and the monastery was completed.

Although the original building was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times over the ensuing centuries, the cats on the island remained, and even flourished into an unofficial sub-breed known as the "Cyprus cat." When the modern incarnation of the monastery was given over to a group of nuns in 1983, the church grounds themselves had become devoid of cats, and the snakes had returned. Unsurprisingly, the sisters took a page from history and brought in even more outside cats which quickly contained the problem.

In addition to the newly imported animals, the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats began taking in any stray cat brought to them in honor of the felines' centuries of service. 

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Aug. 7 2015 3:26 PM

The Unnatural Symmetry of Tree Mountain

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

While the pointed hill in Ylöjärvi, Finland, known as Tree Mountain looks like an oddly symmetrical natural forest, it is actually a colossal work of man-made art that is said to be protected for the next few hundred years.

Proposed in 1982, the hill itself had to be built before the swirling rows of trees could be planted. Once the land itself was built, the artist, Agnes Denes, enlisted 11,000 people from all across the globe to plant 11,000 in a specifically designed pattern. The pattern itself was designed to evoke ancient artworks as well as the mathematical precision found in many of the works of the painting masters.

The planting took place over four years, from 1992 to 1996. With everything set to roll, the artist then let nature do its thing. The trees flourished on the reclaimed land, and by the early 2000s the intricate pattern was beginning to show itself as though it had occurred naturally.

The environmental art project is slated to be a 400-year installation, although there does not seem to be a plan to raze the land when the time is up. In fact, it looks like the trees could last far beyond that date. The forest has continued to thrive over the years and is now so lush that the original pattern can barely be discerned.

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Aug. 6 2015 4:16 PM

Indiana Jones’ Worst Nightmare: The Slithering Masses of of the Narcisse Snake Dens

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Part wildlife conservation preserve, part ophidiophobic nightmare, Canada's Narcisse Snake Dens see tens of thousands of garter snakes arrive each year to sleep and mate in huge slithering piles of serpentine chaos.

At one point in the late 1990s, the population of red-sided garter snakes in the area of Narcisse, Canada approached 70,000, but terrible weather and an unprecedented number of the beasts being crushed while crossing the roads quickly eroded the total.

In the early 2000s, the snake population was dangerously low. In order to remedy this depopulation, the Narcisse Snake Pits Wildlife Management Area was established. Snake-crossing tunnels were created under the roads, and snow guards were installed to funnel the creatures into them, leading towards the wildlife area. New signs cautioned drivers to slow down during peak season.

With all these measures in place, the population of snakes in the area rebounded. Now the wildlife area has become a popular attraction where visitors come to witness the thriving creatures. 

Each year, hordes of snakes come to hibernate in the natural crevasses and tunnels eroded into the porous limestone in the ground. With the thaw of the snow and ice each spring, the sleeping serpents awake and quickly get to making babies in huge, teeming orgies among the grasses outside of their limestone sleeping holes. Despite the seeming impropriety of leering at a bunch of snakes having sex, this is the prime serpent-watching season. 

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Aug. 5 2015 4:46 PM

That’s Not a Bomb Crater, That’s Art

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

As postindustrial America looked back at much of the landscape it had wrought, the number of unappealing tracts of blasted land and gravel pits must have seemed a bit staggering.

To counteract this, a number of artists were commissioned to transform the spaces into something a bit more aesthetically pleasing. In the case of the Seattle Department of Public Works' Johnson Pit #30 (of 100), artist Robert Morris achieved this with grass. Lots of grass. Morris molded the sides of the pit into large, gently sloping steps and covered the entire surface of the dusty pebble pit with wild rye grass. While the pit and its surrounds were entirely cleared to make way for the artsy landscaping, Morris left a scattered bunch of blackened tree stumps along the rim as a monument to the forest that existed on the site before it was converted into a rock pit. Morris noted Peruvian and Persian landscapes as inspirations for the piece.

Today the massive earthwork is still in place, although preservation of the site is an ongoing struggle. The once sharp terraces are in danger of disappearing due to pedestrian traffic, and the grass still needs mowing. The funds for upkeep on the site are provided by a local arts council, but these resources are far from limitless. Regardless, the grassy pit remains and even features a sign explaining that it is art.

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Aug. 4 2015 1:29 PM

The Delicately Balanced Beauty of Krishna’s Butter Ball 

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Forever (hopefully) perched on a steep rock slope in the historic town of Mahabalipuram, India, the massive round boulder known as Krishna's Butter Ball refuses to give in to gravity or the shoves of tourists.

The giant boulder appears to be frozen in its roll down the hill it sits on, and no one is quite sure why. The boulder is likely a glacial erratic that got stranded in a serendipitous position on the hill, but local legend has another version of the story. According to Hindu mythology, when the great god Krishna was just a baby, he was fond of stealing butter. Following this tradition, the big orange stone has been likened to a giant dollop of purloined butter that the god dropped.

The actual name of the stone is Vaan Irai Kal, which translates to Sky God's Stone, and according to one source, the more playful name was given to the rock by a local tour guide. However it got its sort of silly name, it stuck.

Reinforcing the stone's strangely balanced position, the slippery stone slope is used by local children as a slide. Today Krishna's Butter Ball is a popular tourist attraction. Visitors to the site love to get behind the stone and try to push it down the hill. So far no human power has been able to budge the buttery boulder.

Best of all, sometimes the local goats climb on top of it. It's adorable.

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Aug. 3 2015 2:32 PM

Journey to the Center of the Hollow Earth Monument

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

While Jules Verne may have been the most famous writer to expound on the concept that the Earth is hollow, Journey to the Center of the Earth was explicitly a work of fiction.

Early-1800s lecturer John Symmes Jr., however, wanted to let people know that Verne's visions were not as fantastic as they seemed. Ohio's Hollow Earth Monument honors the man's spurious science.

Symmes' Hollow Earth Theory posits exactly what you'd think: that the Earth is in fact hollow. According to Symmes, the empty center of the planet is accessible via shafts located at the north and south poles of the planet, as though Earth is some sort of celestial jewelry bead.

While the theory seems far-fetched by modern standards, Symmes was able to garner a strong amount of interest in the concept via his lecture tours, where he displayed his research into the magnetic fields that he claimed were proof of the holes at the poles. Symmes garnered so much interest that he actually got Congress to vote on funding that would allow him to mount expeditions to the polar regions in the 1820s, where he guaranteed they would find the entrances to the center of the planet. Unfortunately for him, the government did not share Symmes' sense of wonder and the grant was voted down.

After the rigors of the lecture circuit took their toll, Symmes retired to Hamilton, Ohio, where he would eventually died in 1829. One of Symmes' acolytes, Jeremiah Reynolds, continued the Hollow Earth cause for a time, even finding a ship to take him to Antarctica in search of one of the entrances to the inner Earth. Nothing was ever found.

Symmes is remembered by a monument in Hamilton, Ohio's Ludlow Park, which features an abstract hollow Earth, atop a stone pedestal and a plaque that explains his theory. Quackery or not, Symmes' sci-fi theories will not be forgotten anytime soon.

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