Antonio Fornaciari*, Valentina Giuffra°, Silvia Marvelli** and Gino Fornaciari°

*Dipartimento di Archeologia e Storia delle Arti, Area di Archeologia Medievale, Università di Siena. Italia. °Divisione di Paleopatologia, Dipartimento di Oncologia, dei Trapianti e delle Nuove Tecnologie in Medicina, Università di Pisa. Italia. **Laboratorio di Palinologia ed Archeoambientale, Centro Agricoltura Ambiente, San Giovanni in Persicelo, Bologna, Italia.


Key words: artificial mummy, embalming, Italy, santity, Spoleto.

Palabras clave: momia artificial, embalsamacion, Italia, Santidad, Spoleto.


The study of the artificial mummy of the Blessed Christine (c. 1432-1458) from Spoleto (Umbria, central Italy) showed a young, very obese women, with an anthropological age of 20-25 years and a stature of 1.45 m. The body was eviscerated by a transversal cut at the bottom of the neck, a jugulo-epigastric incision, with longitudinal section of the sternum, and a semicircular incision of the epigastric region. Excerebration was obtained by an ovoidal opening of 6×3.5 cm in the squama of the occipital bone. Finally the body was defleshed by several incisions in the arms and limbs and the body cavities were filled with a sort of padding mixed with powder plants, with no suture. We are in the presence of a very complex embalming method, which witnesses a long-practised and diffused custom.



The biography of the Blessed Cristina is not well-known. Hagiographic sources, not founded on a documentary basis, report that she was of North Italian origin, although there is disagreement about her family. According to the more reliable tradition she was born in Calvisano, a village near Brescia, around 1432-35, from the Semenzi family (Balestrini 1966). We know that some years before death she became secular Augustinian and started to lead an irregular life. She arrived at Spoleto where she devoted herself to the care of the sick in the civic hospital. She died at Spoleto on 13 February 1458, in the odour of sanctity. Her body was buried in the Augustinian church of  S. Nicola at the expense of the local council (Del Re 1964), and her cult flourished and spread very quickly. At present her body is preserved in the basilica of San Gregorio Maggiore in Spoleto.

Description of the mummy
Examination of the blessed Cristina took place in 1999, at the invitation of Monsignor Giampiero Ceccarelli, Episcopal chancellor, and thanks to the Bishop of Spoleto, Monsignor Riccardo Fontana. The mummy belongs to an adult woman (external genitals are evident), with a stature of about 144-145 cm, lying in supine position (Fig. 1, a). The anthropological age of 22-25 years, on the basis of dental wear and epiphyses fusion, is compatible with the information provided by hagiographic sources. Although the bone structure reveals an individual of small skeletal constitution, the deep folds of the skin witness a condition of severe obesity. The head, partially skeletonised and positioned on the occipital, is bent towards the left. The skull shows an ovoidal hole(6 x 3.5 cm) in the right side of the occipital squama (Fig. 1, b). Some fibres appear in the auricular external ducts (Fig. 3, b) and in the nasal cavity (vegetable plugs). The stomatognathic apparatus is very well preserved: all the teeth are present, showing evident lines of enamel hypoplasia, due to episodes of stress during childhood. The thorax is in good state of preservation (Fig. 1, c). A transversal cut of about 20 cm at the base of the neck and a longitudinal one from the jugular to the hypogastric region are visible. This second cut allows to examine the sternum, that appears sawn longitudinally (Fig. 1, d). There is also a semicircular cut of the abdominal wall, responsible for the opening by detachment of a portion of the anterior abdominal wall. This part of the abdominal wall, totally disjointed, is located on the abdomen, similar to a “lid”. The upper limbs are outstretched parallel to the body. The elbows and the medial portion of the arms show two bilateral 7-cm cuts. The left hand is leaning on the left thigh. The right hand is absent. The lower as well as the upper limbs are extended and incomplete: the right foot and the left tibia are missing. The left foot is present but not anatomically connected to the leg. There are two anterior, long, longitudinal cuts along the thighs. Two longitudinal cuts can also be seen in the gluteo-poplitea region, which is the medial region of the thighs and the calves. The dark-coloured skin is well preserved, despite the evident signs of decay in the lower limbs, with traces of grubs. Cross-shaped signs are present on the skin, especially near the cuts. Examination of the thoracic and abdominal cavities reveals total absence of all the internal organs, due to evident evisceration: heart, lungs, stomach, intestine, spleen, liver, kidneys, urinary bladder and reproductive organs.

The embalming process
Macroscopic examination reveals that the body of the Blessed Cristina was strongly manipulated for reasons of preservation. In particular, the following four operations were performed to this purpose: 1) craniotomy; 2) evisceration; 3) defleshing; 4) embalming.

1. Craniotomy (Fig. 1, b)
Craniotomy for  ablation of the brain (excerebration), was obtained with an irregular oval-shaped hole (6 x 3.5 cm). The cut, performed with a saw and scalpel, is incomplete but semicircular along the squama of the occipital bone, while the lower portion of the fragment is broken and was then overturned to the interior of the skull where it was found.

2. Evisceration
The Blessed Cristina was eviscerated by a series of cuts: the first is semicircular and located transversally at the base of the neck. The second cut was performed from the jugular to the hypogastric region, from where a third cut runs semicircularly across the superior abdominal region (Fig. 1, c). The first cuts allowed access to the thoracic cavity, the third to the abdominal. While access to the abdomen cavity created no difficulty, access to the thorax required the longitudinal cut of the sternum (Fig. 1, d). These operations allowed to empty the thoraco-abdominal cavity completely. The lips of the jugulo-hypogastric cut, unlike those of the other one, irregular and withdrawn, are clean and not retracted. These details suggest that the cut was opened and edged when the body had already been mummified. It is likely that the original cut had been reopened and cut  – we found the ribbons of skin – probably when in the 19st century two ribs were extracted to make some relics. Incision showed no trace of suture.

3. Defleshing
The Blessed Cristina showed to be affected by severe obesity. In order to favour preservation, the operator thought it was necessary to remove as much as possible a part of the muscular masses from the adipose tissue of the body. The operator then made several targeted incisions: medial cuts on the arms, cuts in the folds of the elbows, on the anterior portion of the thighs (Fig. 2, a) and in the gluteo-poplitea region, in the medial portion of the thighs and in the calves (Fig. 2, d). Those incisions are bilateral and the cuts show traces of suture only in the gluteo region (Fig. 2, b). There are visible cross-shaped signs, made with coal on the glutei near the cuts. Before cutting, the operator traced reference marks on the skin of the Blessed (Fig.2, c).

4. Embalming
After evisceration and excarnation, the thoraco-abdominal and subcutaneous cavities were probably washed and cleaned. After drying, the operator proceeded with the actual embalming process. The cavities were filled with preservative substances, resins and vegetable fibres (Fig. 3, a). The nasal and auricular orifices were closed with hempen plugs, probably to avoid the emission of liquids during exposure (Fig. 3, b). On the basis of these evidences it is possible to assert that the operations of evisceration, defleshing and embalming were carried out by an expert operator, a surgeon who knew anatomy well and who had programmed surgery with reference points traced on the blessed body after the embalming operation (Fig. 2, c).   

Vegetables used to fill the bodies
The Botanical analyses on macroremains and pollens of the embalming material revealed the presence of different kinds of vegetables (Fig. 4). The samples for macroremains analysis were analyzed by stereomicroscope. The samples for pollen analysis were processed according to standard techniques and analyzed by light microscope. Cannabis sativa – like hempen tow – is the main filling material (Fig. 4, a-c). Together with the hemp there are macroremains (Fig. 4, b) of aromatic plants (Rosemary and Lavender). The palinological spectra show: deciduous Oaks/Quercus deciduous (0.6%), Myrtle/Myrtus communis (2.4%), Walnut/Juglans regia (0.3%), Sage/Salvia (0.3%), Rue/Ruta (0.3%), various Chenopodiaceae (1.5%), Caper/Capparis (1.8%),Hemp/Cannabis sativa (90%), Cruciferae like Wildmustard/Sinapis (0.5%), various Gramineae (0.9%),wheat/Triticum (0.8%), etc. (Fig. 4 d-e-f- g). The presence of aromatic plants is remarkable also in pollens (Myrtle, Caper, Sage, Wild mustard). Residual pollens of Walnut and Olive suggest the use of vegetable oils, but in this connection further analyses are in progress.

 The case of the Blessed Cristina from Spoleto belongs to the late medieval Tosco Umbrian background, where operations carried out on holy bodies for preservation were evinced materially from the late XIII century. Six cases of artificially mummified bodies of saints are known in literature (Fulcheri, 1996). Our Blessed Cristina and the artificial mummy of the Blessed Marina from Spoleto († 1300 about), which shows signs of craniotomy and defleshing and is still preserved in the basilica of S. Ponziano at Spoleto, must be added to those six cases. Some of these important and rare cases have been examined in the past years using a scientific approach. The survey on this subject published by Ezio Fulcheri (1996) is fundamental. In particular, the treatment of the Blessed Cristina’s body can be compared with the mummy of S. Margherita from Cortona, 150 years older and the first example of artificially mummified saint that we know of. This mummy shows “deep chest and abdomen incisions performed to eviscerate the body, as well as incisions along the large upper and lower limb muscles. All incisions had been sutured with whipstitches in a thick black thread…”(Fulcheri, 1996: 223). It is quite likely that there are other artificially mummified “uncorrupted bodies” to be discovered in the areas of Tuscany and Umbria. However, in order to be investigated, they first need to be uncovered, because only direct examination of the corpses can ascertain the presence of cuts in the skin and the historical sources did not always pay much attention to the details which are so important for us. On the mummification technique we can mention some examples from the basilica of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples to compare with Blessed Christina.  The mummies of Francesco Ferdinando d’Avalos (NASD 28/1482-1525) and that of an unknown aristocratic man of about 25 years (NASD 11) show longitudinal section of the sternum; however, especially defleshing, as we have seen, is typical of artificially mummified saint bodies and in San Domenico there are two cases of this kind: the body of the Duke Antonio d’Aragona (1540-1584) shows many longitudinal incisions on the upper and lower limbs, at the level of the dorsum, on glutei and even on foot spans (Fig. 5, c). The body of the son of the Duke Antonio Carafa (NASD 2), who died in 1607 a few months after his birth, shows longitudinal cuts of defleshing on the lower limbs. Embalming with evisceration and defleshing, even at the beginning of the nineteenth century, is well documented effectively by the mummy (NASD 39) of Joachim Napoleon Agar (1811-1812), still in San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, that shows incisions on the back of the upper limbs and the glutei (Marinozzi & Fornaciari, 2005: 275-279).

In medieval Europe failure of the usual postmortem decay process was considered a spiritual sign of divine recognition, but in our case conservation was caused by anthropogenic manipulation. We were only able to enumerate eight known cases of artificially embalmed corpses of saints (Fig. 5, a). These examples are important because they show that, despite the severe pontificial dispositions which prohibited invasive treatment on the dead bodies (Marinozzi & Fornaciari, 2005) , common practice was actually quite different and we are informed directly about the surgical methods of that period,   which the written sources have not been able to clarify. Apart from the texts of Razes, that did not treat the problems of evisceration and stripping, the first medical treatises on the topic were written by Giovanni da Vigo (1514) and then by Ambroise Paré (1564) (Marinozzi & Fornaciari, 2005) . In conclusion, these mummies of Italian saints constitute the first examples of artificial embalming in Western Europe, carried out by surgical methods. Very interesting is also the cultural and social context in which the phenomenon took place. In this respect, the following distinguishing elements should be underlined: 1) geographical area of diffusion which includes Umbria and Tuscany (Fig. 5, d); 2) urban characterization of the phenomenon; 3) social and religious ambience: the mendicant orders and in particular the third orders, formed by laymen; 4) prevalent female dimension of the phenomenon. We can try to explain historically these characteristic elements that in part are closely related. Why were the charismatic personalities of religious figures, already considered “saints” at the moment of death, preserved with interventions of evisceration and stripping of flesh? There could be no doubts about the preservation of these bodies: in fact the preserved body became a tangible witness of the presence of the saint for protection of the town community. It was not by chance that this phenomenon occurred in central Italy, between Umbria and Tuscany, where municipal civilization developed and where in any case a strong sense of municipal independence was strongly radicated. Possession of a saint’s body, which could be identified in its features, was a reason of pride, political symbol proper (Sophia Boesch Gajano, 1999: 23; Favole, 2003: 79-80.), and in this respect it is important that the funerals of the Blessed Cristina were celebrated at the expense of the Municipality of Spoleto (Balestrini, 1996). However, the intervention of the municipal public authority can also be found in other well documented cases, as in the funerally and embalming processes of Saint Margherita from Cortona (Mariani, 1978) and of Blessed Margherita from Città di Castello (Fig. 5, b). In this second case we even know the names of surgeons told by “rectores Civitatis Castelli”: magister Vitale da Castello and magister Manno da Gubbio (Analecta Bollandiana, 19). The penitential movements which developed in the Italian society of the Late Middle Ages under the influence of Franciscan and Dominican rule brought new mystic and religious ferment and between the 13th and 15th centuries produced new figures of saints, often belonging to the Third Order circles, laymen operating among the people. The women in these orders are numerous, becoming more and more visible and popular (Sophia Boesch Gajano, 1999: 72-73; Vauchez, 2003: 207). The corporeal dimension, owing to the physical involvement of mystical union, now gains more importance than in the past (Sophia Boesch Gajano, 1999: 74), and justifies the new attention to preservation of corpses which leads to direct invasiveness on the holy body.

Analecta Bollandiana, 19. Vita Beatae Margaritae Virginis de Civitate Castelli. Roma 1900.

Aufderheide, A.C., 2002. The scientific study of mummies, Cambridge University Press.

Balestrino, F., 1996. La questione storica della Beata Cristina Semenzi, in “Brixia Sacra” 1-2 Giugno, Brescia.

Benvenuti Papi, A., 1984. Una terra di sante e di città. Suggestioni agiografiche in Italia, in “Il movimento religioso femminile in Umbria nei secoli XIII-XIV”, Firenze, 185-202.

Boesch Gajano, S., 1999. La santità, Bari.

Da Vigo, G. 1514. Practica copiosa in arte chirurgica ad filium Aloisium, Roma.

Del Re N., 1965. Cristina da Spoleto, beata, in Biblioteca Sanctorum IV, Roma, c. 341.

Favole, A., 2003. Resti di umanità, Bari.

Fulcheri, E., 1996. Mummies of Saints: a particular category of Italian mummies, in “Human Mummies – The Man in the Ice III” a cura di K. Spindlet et Al., 219 -230, Wien

Guerrini, P. 1916, Note di agiografia bresciana, in “Brixia Sacra”, Anno VII,140 – 181, Brescia.

Mariani, P.E., 1978. Fra Giunta Bevegnati: La Leggenda della vita e dei miracoli di Santa Margherita da Cortona. Nuova traduzione dal latino con prefazione e note, Vicenza.

Marinozzi S. and G. Fornaciari, 2005. Le mummie e l’arte medica nell’evo moderno, in “Medicina nei secoli”, Supplemento n.1, Roma.

Parè A., 1564. Dix livres de la chirurgie avec le magasin des instruments nécessaires à icelle, Paris.

Temperini, L. (eds.), 1998. Santi e santità nel movimento penitenziale francescano dal ‘200 al ‘500, Roma.

Terribile W.M.V., and C. Corrain, 1986. Pratiche imbalsamatorie in Europa, Patologica 78, 107-118.

Vouchez A., 2003. Esperienze religiose nel medioevo, Roma.


In the bull “Detestandae feritatis abusum“, well known as “De Sepolturis”, of 1300, Pope Bonifacio VIII prohibited all forms of mutilation and violation of the corpses, but in 1316 Mondino de’ Liuzzi already performed the first public anatomic dissection in the medicine hall of the University of Bologna (Marinozzi & Fornaciari 2005).

Giovanni da Vigo (1450-1525), La Pratica in arte chirurgica copiosa (Roma, 1514), in chapter “de custodia et preservatione corporis mortui ne putrefiant”.  Ambrosie Paré (1509-1590), Dix livres de la chirurgie avec le magasin des instruments nécessaires à icelle, (1564) in chapter “De la façon d’embaumer les corps morts“  (Marinozzi & Fornaciari 2005).


Fig. 1.the mummy of the Blessed Christina from Spoleto; b: irregular oval-shaped hole for ablation of the brain; c: the thorax of the Blessed Christina; d: detail of longitudinal cut of the sternum.


Fig. 2. cut on the right thigh; b: detail of the left gluteus with defleshing cuts; c: cross-shaped sign near the cut on the left gluteus; d: position of the cuts for evisceration and defleshing.


Fig. 3. the abdominal cavity filled with substances; b: the hempen plug in the right ear.


Fig. 4. tows used to fill cavity; b: macroremains of Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and
Lavander (Lavandula); c: fibre of hemp (Cannabis sativa); d: pollen analysis of filling material: palynological spectra; e: sage (Salvia); f: walnut (Juglans); g: Chenopodiacee.


Fig. 5. Artificially mummified bodies of Italian saints; b: mummy of Blessed Margherita from Città di Castello (from Aufderheide, 2000: 202) ; c: mummy of the duke Antonio D’Aragona (1540-1584), incisions of defleshing on the dorsum; d: location of artificial mummies of saints in Central Italy.