We were on a cruise of the Mediterannean and we had a stop at Bari in southern Italy. It was a hot, stifling day and we had toured a few churches and I was feeling “churched out”, so I stayed out in the cool shade while my wife went into a little neighborhood church to have yet another look around. She came out and told me there was something in the basement I just had to see.
I protested that I had had enough church tours, but she insisted, telling me I really needed, indeed, wanted to see what was down there because if was bizarre beyond belief. I couldn’t imagine what could be strange enough to make me want to go, after all, I had toured Italy the year before, and had seen many strange things, including some nuns praying at a shrine that contained nothing but the finger of some saint.
What awaited me in the basement of that church was beyond even that. I went down the stone stairs with some trepidation, and there, in all her glory was Saint Columba. I was transfixed. This was the mummified body of a 16th century nun. The detail was startling. She is so perfectly preserved. She lies in a glass casket, and as I recall has gold satin slippers on her feet and a halo made of gold wire around her head. Oh yes, she’s also holding a feather. I stared. I was dumbfounded.
I have always considered Catholic iconography and ritual bizarre, but this really took the cake. When I went back outside there were several children playing ball, bouncing it against the wall of the church. They were not twenty feet from the body in the basement. It occurred to me that they had seen this all their lives and to them it was normal.
I’ve since learned that mummification of religious figures was common all over Europe, but especially in Italy and France. What I find most bizarre of all, however, is that it all seems so perfectly normal to them.