A shriveled saint

Trip Start Sep 25, 2012
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Trip End Oct 16, 2012


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Flag of France  , Provence,
Thursday, October 4, 2012

The somewhat gruesome highlight of our day was viewing the desiccated body of a 600 year-old woman. Sainte Roseline, who died in 1329, was on display in a glass case in a small chapel in Les Arcs.  Her eyeballs sat nearby, in their own reliquary.

The day began with an idyllic leisurely breakfast.  In fact, it was so leisurely that the picnic we'd packed for consumption in the countryside had to be eaten right on the terrasse--no way would we be ready to leave home before 1 pm.  But eat, then leave we finally did. 

Manfred expertly drove us through the Var countryside to the chapel of Ste Roseline de Villeneuve, located outside the village of Les Arcs-Sur Argens.  Between the car park, which overlooks beautiful fields and vineyards, and the chapel one must go through a very stylish winery, Chateau Sainte Roseline.  It was a bit ironic that an ascetic saint, interested only in helping the poor, should have her name attached to a swish winery.

Sainte Roseline was high-born to a nobleman in 1263, a time of famine.  At an early age she showed an unusual sensitivity to the needy.  In fact, as a girl Roseline used to smuggle food from the larder to give to poor people outside the gates of her chateau.  When her father discovered her antics he was furious and forbade her to continue her good works.  But she persisted.  One morning daddy caught Roseline leaving the house holding a bundle in her apron.  In fact, the apron contained loaves of bread that she intended to give to the poor.  Her father confronted her, demanding that she reveal what she was hiding.  But when she dropped the apron a cascade of red roses came out, despite the fact that it was mid-winter.  This miracle had two benefits:  It got her off the hook for disobeying her father, and it confirmed that she was headed for sainthood.  Soon thereafter she joined an order of nuns.

One of her nunnish duties was to cook and serve dinner to the sisters.  One day, however, in the kitchen she was so overcome with the love of God that she went into a reverie of worship and contemplation.  She snapped out of it just before the dinner bell rang.  But once again, she avoided catching hell from a superior—a band of angels had descended to the convent, prepared the dinner and set the table.  This episode is the subject of the magnificent mosaic in the chapel, which was done by Marc Chagall.  Please click on the photos below for a view of the entire mosaic as well as some of the angelic details.

After a life of worship and service to the poor she died in 1329 at the age of 66.  She was buried "in plain ground."  Five years later, for unclear reasons, she was exhumed.  To the amazement of the exhumers, according to the pamphlet available in the chapel, she was found to be “perfectly conserved with her eyes open and with a clear, generous expression.”  This was deemed a miracle.  Apparently, along with the previous episodes of the roses in the apron and the angels making dinner there was now a critical mass of miracles, and she was declared a saint.  Her perfectly preserved body was put on display, and pilgrims came from afar to pray to her. 

All was well, according to the pamphlet, until Napoleon came along and heard about Ste Rosaline’s perfectly preserved body.  He sent his personal physician to Les Arcs to investigate.  The doctor was suitably impressed, particularly with Rosaline’s clear, generous eyes.  Just to be sure they were real he asked for a pin, and punctured the left one.  Indeed, fluid squirted out, confirming the miracle.  But unfortunately the violence done to the eye caused it to cloud up.  At some point thereafter both eyes were removed and placed in their own reliquary, which sits nearby the now-eyeless corpse.

The next major event in the life—or more properly, the death—of Ste Rosaline was in the 1880s, when her corpse was investigated by the head of the Agriculture Department in nearly Draguignan.  Draguignan, by the way, is famous, among other things, for being the home town of one of the oldest women ever to give birth. This occurred in 2001, while we were living in France, not too far from there.  And as you might imagine, it caused quite a stir. 

The mother, Jeanine Salomone, age 62, and her brother Robert, age 52, were apparently desperate for an heir to secure their 80 year old mother’s $3 million fortune.  Without a child, they feared that the money would be divvied up amongst distant cousins.  So they travelled to an IVF clinic in the US (California, of course), passing themselves off as a childless married couple. They bought an egg “donated” by a young American woman, and Robert supplied the sperm.  Then the fertilized egg was implanted into Mme Salomone’s uterus.  After returning to Draguignan, the mother gave birth to Benoit-David, a bouncing baby boy.  Defending herself at her Draguignan farmhouse, with baby bouncing on her knee, she told reporters,  'I've done nothing wrong and I have nothing on my conscience.  I am not irresponsible.  I may be 62 and my brother 52 but we're better able to bring up children than a couple of heroin addicts depending on the state to bring up their child.  Why judge us and not people like them?  I've been battling to have a child for years.  I treasure my little one and I get up three times a night like all mothers. I sing to rock him to sleep. My son is more than I ever hoped for.'

Of interest, a contemporary news article (there, of course, were many) wrote:  “Neighbours say that the brother and sister have a tempestuous relationship and do not get on well. In a fit of depression, he tried to shoot himself in the head with a shotgun five years ago after she threw him out of their home. The suicide attempt left him severely disfigured.  A police report in 1993 stated: 'The members of this family ferociously hate each other and use the police to settle their fights. The situation is very worrying, and is caused by family misunderstandings about future inheritance.'”

The birth was a national sensation, with many French officials weighing in.  Professor Axel Kahn of the French medical ethics committee said, “This sickens, saddens and shocks me. It disturbs all the family relationships because it means the little boy is the son of his uncle, while his genetic mother is a surrogate he will never know.”  Meanwhile, the French Health Minister, Bernard Kouchner, added: “This poses the problem of fairly uncontrollable deviations in all our technical advances and scientific progress.  It is not tragic but the very idea that this could become something with no limits, is obviously a problem."  Finally, the French Social Affairs Ministry spokesperson was quoted as saying, “This appears to be incest.  We are very worried about the life ahead for Jeanine’s child.”  French police investigated the affair, however, and determined that “no offence had been committed."

But back to Sainte Rosaline.  As I said before interrupting myself, in the 1880s the head of the Draguignan Agriculture Department was asked to examine the corpse of Sainte Roseline because of “an insect infestation.”  He confirmed the concern, and arranged for the body to be taken into Draguignan for treatment.  It’s not stated whether the eyeballs accompanied the corpse, or stayed behind in the chapel.  In any case, the body was treated with appropriate pesticides by the staff of the Agriculture Department, then cleaned up and returned to the chapel, where it rests, presumably insect-free, to this day.

After hearing so much about Ste Rosaline, I was filled with awe as I approached her display case.  The first thing that struck me was what a tiny woman she was.  Having lived over 600 years ago, her diminutive stature was understandable.  Rosaline was well-dressed in a black and white habit, from the sleeves of which emerged two claw-like hands with black, waxy fingers.  Their shape was reminiscent of the feet of the chickens that my grandmother used to bring home from Zappa’s, the live chicken butchers next door.  And the head was even more disturbing: Roseline’s skin, drawn very tight over prominent ape-like teeth, was the color of chestnuts. (This was the height of chestnut season in Provence, so chestnuts were indeed on our minds.)  I thought how challenging it would be to venerate such a corpse, especially for small French children who are brought to the chapel by their parents to pray over her.  To paraphrase the French Social Affairs Ministry, 'I am very worried about the life ahead for such children.  However, it appears that no offence has been committed.’
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