Ring the bell next to the plain wooden door in the beautiful church of Chiesa della Santa, Bologna, and you'll be granted a meeting with a 600-year-old woman. The mummified body of St. Catherine of Bologna, born in 1413, sits upright in a golden throne, wearing a nun's habit, her black hands clutching a golden cross and a bible. The tight skin of her near-featureless face is mottled and dark brown, stained by the soot of ever-present candles.
Adorning the walls around St. Catherine are fingers, toes, and a skull crowned with flowers; all from other saints or important figures of the church. During her lifetime, St. Catherine was said to have been tormented by gruesome visions of the crucifixion, the last judgment, and the devil's tricks. She was a talented painter and gifted musician—that's her beloved violin hanging on the wall to her right—and is the patron saint of artists and temptation.
When she died in 1463, Catherine was buried in the nun’s churchyard without being embalmed or placed in a coffin. Although no flowers were placed around her grave, it was said that the smell of flowers pervaded the area for days. When suspicious nuns later exhumed her body, they were surprised to discover, in the words of the church pamphlet, that she was "intact, flexible and sweet-smelling."
Inspired by the absence of decay, the abbesses placed Catherine's body in the convent for the sisters to view. A few years later, a nun reported that Catherine had appeared to her in a vision asking to be placed in the chapel sitting upright. The nuns dressed her in a habit, placed a golden cross in her hands, and sat her in an elegant golden chair where she remains today.
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