A touch of France: The eternal life of bones: tidbits of French history through the trials and tribulations of relics of the illustrious



The eternal life of bones
Tidbits of French history through the trials and tribulations of relics of the illustrious
by C. Portier-Kaltenbach,France


Pharaoh Ramses II almost started a diplomatic row between Egypt and France in 2006—more than 3200 years after his death. Or rather his hair did. French police found a few tufts (of a rather fetching auburn, even after all these years) when they raided the home of postal worker Jean-Michel Diebolt in the Alpine town of Grenoble. It turned out that Diebolt père had done research on the mummy in the 1970s and bequeathed the pharaonic keratin to Diebolt fils, who offered it for sale on the Internet, for 2000 euros. Such relic-mongering for gain, monetary here, but also spiritual or secular, has a long and colorful history. A couple of Venetian merchants may have started the craze back in 828 when they stole Saint Mark’s bones from a church in Alexandria and took them back to Venice. From then onwards, human remains were on everyone’s wish list—Buddha’s teeth, Saint Matthew’s legs (all eleven of them), Voltaire’s heart, Napoleon’s hair—but especially bits of bone: bones are long-lasting, don’t stain, and can be fashioned into trinkets. But after centuries of bony prominence, the whole business became, well, ossified. Nowadays, there’s a more personal touch to commemoration. Why bother with body parts from people you’ve never met, however illustrious, when you need look no further than your nearest and dearest? Take a deceased loved one or pet, cremate, extract carbon, heat and compact for months, and voilà a diamond. Ashes to ashes, dust to diamond.

Medicographia. 2010;32:444-452 (see French abstract on page 452)

Earthly fame has seldom been rewarded with everlasting rest. Rather, peddlers of indulgences, collectors, articulators of bones have oft preyed upon the mortal remains of men and women famed in their lifetimes for righteousness or might, derring-do, or nimbleness of mind. Displayed for the curious and gullible, bought and sold, the “choicest morsels” among relics sacred and profane have always been bones.

From holy relics…

_ In Christianity
One of the most “encyclopedic” collections of relics of early Christian saints, in the form of little bits and chips of bone placed in ornate reliquaries, along with other larger holy remains, can be found in the Abbey of Saint-Victor in Marseilles.

Of the Abbey, one of the first on French soil, only the church remains after the destructions wrought by the French Revolution in the 18th century. The squat square-shaped twotowered crenellated edifice, which looks more like a toy castle than a religious building, overlooks the Old Port (Vieux-Port) of Marseilles and is a must visit. It was named after the eponymous saint martyred in Marseilles in 304 and founded in the 5th century by John Cassian (ca 360-435), who “imported” oriental monastic spirituality to Europe from the deserts of Palestine and Egypt. Saint-Victor exemplifies the importance for the faithful of being able to relate to their illustrious predecessors by enshrining their remains in their churches. Preserving relics of the saints and martyrs is a tradition that goes back to the dawn of the Church. However, the cult of holy relics properly flourished throughout the Middles Ages and reached its apogee in 13th-century Europe. Every saint was reputed to have touched God, so the least splinter of his bones was deemed sacred and, it was believed, had the miraculous capacity to protect its owner against all manner of ills. And so any good Christian would hope to procure one.

Louis IX (1214-1270), King of France, was one of the greatest collectors in the West and bought up everything linked, however tenuously, with the Passion of the Christ. The centerpiece of his collection was Christ’s Crown of Thorns, which he bought in 1238 from a Venetian merchant to whom it had been pawned for 135 000 livres by Baldwin II of Courtenay, the last and impecunious emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. Louis IX’s precious acquisition cost three times more than the Sainte-Chapelle built to house it on the Île de la Cité in Paris. Today the relic in the treasure of Notre-Dame cathedral, a 2-minute walk from the Sainte-Chapelle, and is presented on the first Friday of every month to the veneration of the faithful at 3 PM (the purported time of the Crucifixion), as well as on Good Friday. Its official custodians still are the Knights of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, whose current Grand Master is John Patrick Foley, an American Cardinal.


Holy bones in Saint-Victor Abbey in Marseilles: display of reliquaries
containing osseous remains of early Christian saints and martyrs, including the skull of saint John Cassian (top middle), and morsels of saints Agatha, Benignus, Caesarius, Constant II, Facondi, Felicity, Fidelius, Fortunatus, Justin, and many others.

© Abbaye Saint-Victor – Ville de Marseille. All rights reserved.

When he died, Louis IX, who was considered a living saint, was promptly transmuted into relics: his body was boiled in wine and his bones were held in a silver casket. But not for long, since from 1308 the bones were shared among vari- ous churches, a fate that was perhaps to be expected following his canonization as Saint Louis at the close of the 13th century. On the eve of the French Revolution of 1789, various Parisian churches still possessed one of his ribs, a finger, a bone from his hand, as well as his skull and a jawbone. Curiously, his heart is preserved at the cathedral of Monreale, in Sicily.

In 16th-century Europe there was such a glut of saintly bones in circulation that in 1543 the Protestant theologian John Calvin denounced their proliferation and the accompanying unbridled trade in his A Treatise on Relics. Calvin thought it behooved him to point out to guileless believers that supposed relics were often held in more than one place at the same time. Leaving aside Christ’s hair, chin whiskers, and milk teeth, and the Virgin Mary’s breast milk, was it reasonable to suppose that there were also three foreskins of Christ, eleven legs of Saint Matthew, thirty-two fingers of Saint Peter, ten heads of Saint Léger, and three bodies of Saint Agnes? Calvin’s treatise doubtless dampened the enthusiasm of collectors, but failed to stop the veneration of holy relics, to the point that even today the Vatican unblinkingly admits that it owns two heads of Saint Peter: one within the Vatican City in Rome, in Saint Peter’s Basilica, and one without, at the Papal Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran. Pilgrims fond of the Apostle Peter are therefore spoilt for choice, and can collect their thoughts alongside either head, with the benediction of the Holy See.

_ In other religions
Rest assured, Christianity is not the only religion to prize such collections. Although Muslims have none of Mohammed’s bones, hairs from his beard are on display in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. As for Buddhists, in Sri Lanka they have one of Buddha’s teeth, and the ashes from his funeral pyre.

More surprisingly, a country as “modern” as the United States is a venue of choice for relics, albeit in an “ecumenical” spirit. The relics of Saint Louis travel regularly to Louisiana, for display in the Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans (note that the name Louisiana has nothing to do with Saint Louis; rather this vast territory, which originally extended to the Great Lakes, was named by the French explorer René Robert Cavelier de La Salle in 1682 in honor of the Sun King Louis XIV). As to the Buddha, his ashes are held at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, donated by Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma in thanks for the international recognition of the Day of Vesak, commonly equated with the Buddha’s day of birth, but in fact encompassing his birth, enlightenment (nirvana), and death.


The Sainte-Chapelle, on the Île de la Cité in Paris, was built in 1248 by King Louis IX, as a giant reliquary to preserve the Crown of Thorns.

The sight from within is breathtaking, giving the impression that the church consists more of glass than stone, with a 360° offering of stained glass windows reaching from top to nearly bottom. © B. Didier. All rights reserved.


John Calvin (1509-1564), the French theologian and reformer issued a thundering Treatise in 1543, ridiculing the cult of relics.

Collection of Albert Rilliet, Geneva, Switzerland © Giraudon/Bridgeman
Giraudon.

Relics then can play a political role and further friendship between peoples: in 2006, as a gesture of goodwill and to express desire for dialogue and cordial relations with Orthodox Russians, the Vatican lent Russia the hand that Saint John the Baptist is reputed to have used to baptize Christ.

…to the bones of the famous

_ Man, this admirable creature
The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century changed the way holy relics were viewed. The existence of God was called into question, and if God does not exist then clearly man is the most fascinating creature in this lowly world, and if there is no resurrection of the flesh or soul, no eternal life, all that remains of him after death is his bones. Thereafter, the craze was for bits of remarkable people.

When the French philosopher Voltaire died, his admirers took his heart and brain, a heel bone and a few teeth. The Marquis de Villette kept the heart in a small mausoleum inscribed with the words: “His heart is here, but his spirit is everywhere.” A century later, the heart in question was the subject of a sordid quarrel over a last will and testament. The heirs of the Marquis de Villette went to court to assert their right “to hold in trust” the noble organ. To end their squabble, the Minister of Public Instruction was reduced to declaring the philosopher’s heart a “national treasure,” to the point that this desiccated organ was thereafter deemed part of the nation’s heritage. Every French person today can therefore consider him- or herself the proud owner of one 65 millionth of Voltaire’s heart.

_ A free-(bone)-for-all….
The French revolution in 1789 marked a complete turnabout in the way bones and other relics came to be treated. First there was the acute sanitary problem posed by the congested cemeteries in Paris in the 17th century. It was decided to dispose of the overflow of bones by placing them in the ancient empty tunnels of long abandoned stone quarries of which Paris boasted miles upon miles. This brilliant idea originally came from Alexandre Lenoir, a revolutionary who fell in love with bones and about whom more will be said later. But better hygiene was not the only outcome of the Revolution. It was not long before the rabble bent on revenge for centuries of being the underdogs, broke into the tombs of aristocrats and above all of the Kings of France, who since the 7th century had been buried in Saint Denis Cathedral, near Paris. For days on end, graves were dug up and coffins prized open to recover the lead, for melting down into bullets, as France was then at war. Skeletons were desecrated and bones dispersed, but many vandals also took their pick of gruesome souvenirs. First come first served: a leg here, an arm there, a few teeth, wisps of hair, whiskers. The Sun King, Louis XIV (who built the Château de Versailles), lost his last few teeth during these days of pillaging in the summer of 1793. Meanwhile, in the south of France, the sans-culottes (meaning “without knee-breeches,” in reference to the poorer members of society) opened the tomb of the famous 16th-century apothecary and reputed seer Nostradamus, and drank out of his skull. The beverage is not recorded, but vin ordinaire is probably a safe bet.


Piles of bones lining the Catacombs in Paris. One of France’s most popular
tourist attractions, the Catacombs are a huge ossuary filling several sections of the
ancient underground limestone quarries crisscrossing the lower depths of Paris.

This particular section contains the remains transferred from the former Parisian cemetery of St Landry.
© Robert Holmes/CORBIS.

While no one was overly bothered that royal bones should be strewn across byways and highways, could not the bones of illustrious men and women beloved of the people serve the cause of the Revolution? As goblets, perhaps, so worthy citizens could drink to the health of the nation? With this idea in mind, the bones of the playwright Molière and of the poet La Fontaine were taken to the Paris Hôtel des Monnaies (which struck coins and medals). Fortunately, this egregious plan was stymied by political events which, in those troubled times, were moving at a frightening pace. The chemist at the Hôtel des Monnaies did, however, send a piece of Molière’s jaw to the Comédie-Française, the great Parisian theater, where it remains to this day, not far, it may be added, from a statue whose base contains Voltaire’s brain, swapped by its owners in 1924 for two free seats in the stalls for twenty years.


Molière (pseudonym Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, 1622-1673) in the stage costume of Sganarelle. One of France’s greatest dramatists, his plays are still performed nonstop at the Comédie-Française and many other theaters in France and abroad.

A fragment of his jaw is kept at the library of the Comédie-Française. Etching by Claude Simonin (1635-1721). © RMN/Agence Bulloz.


Statue of Voltaire (7416-1778) by Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) at the Library of the Comédie-Française in which the philosopher of the Enlightenment’s brain is enshrined.

© RMN/Agence Bulloz.

Descartes fared no better. A few years after his death in Stockholm in 1650, his body was dug up for return to France. The French ambassador overseeing the exhumation pocketed part of the philosopher’s index finger, considering it “the instrument of immortal writing.” Meanwhile, one of the Swedish guards on duty pilfered the skull and flogged it to pay a few debts. Years later, when entrusted with transferring the philosopher’s remains, the archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir— who devoted his life to saving historical monuments, tombs, and other treasures from the destructive fury of the French Revolution—filched a pelvic bone and sculpted rings for a few friends. As for the skull, it resurfaced in 1821 when it was put up for sale at 37 francs, along with the possessions of a certain Sparrman, the manager of a gambling den in Stockholm. It subsequently came into the hands of the Swedish chemist Berzelius. Knowing that the “rest” of Descartes was in France, Berzelius packed the cranium in a pretty hatbox and sent it to his French colleague Georges Cuvier, one of the pioneers of a whole new discipline known variously as phrenology, craniology, craniometry, or physiognomony. Cuvier and the like-minded Franz Joseph Gall, Paul Broca, and George Combe claimed that personality traits could be divined by examining the shape of a person’s braincase.

As luck would have it, there was at the time a steady supply of skulls thanks to the zealous use that had recently been made of “Madame Guillotine” (also dubbed “The National Razor”) in the Place de la Révolution (now Place de la Concorde) in Paris. One such came from Charlotte Corday. A noted figure in the history of France, Charlotte had in July 1793 assassinated Jean-Paul Marat, scourge of the “enemies of the Revolution” and one of the most influential politicians during The Terror, the 14-month period when revolutionary fervor was at its height and perhaps as many as forty thousand victims had been guillotined. That’s something like one every 8 minutes for a 12-hour working day (no vacation or days off, la Révolution oblige). Charlotte’s skull later found its way into the possession of a fervent enthusiast of craniology, while the rest of her was lost to history.

A little over a century later, in 1889, the skull turned up at the Exposition Universelle organized on the occasion of the centenary of the Storming of the Bastille, the flashpoint of the revolution. A small label informed the curious that its owner was Prince Roland Bonaparte, a nephew of Napoleon. At the Prince’s request, five experts examined the skull. Two declared that in no way was it that of a criminal; the other three had rarely seen a more villainous-looking specimen. So much for experts. Fingering the contours of the heads of the famous or infamous was all the rage in the 19th century. The heads of criminals naturally excited much interest. Gall studied the skulls of Cartouche (17th-century highwayman) and Lacenaire (19th-century murderer and would-be wordsmith), and of the Marquis de Sade, not to mention that of Descartes who, wherever he (or rather the rest of him) was, must have thought things had come to a sorry pass to be lumped together with these scoundrels. “I think, therefore I am (not like them).”

Even Napoleon couldn’t escape the craze. When he died on 5 May 1821, after six years of captivity on the island of Saint Helena, he was autopsied by Dr Antommarchi, who also applied “Gall’s method.” And the startling conclusions of this scrupulous examination of Napoleon’s cranium?Well, that the Emperor had the bump corresponding to—yes, you guessed— conquest. Shrewd indeed. Vive la craniologie! Now, as we are, so to speak, on Saint Helena along with Napoleon’s mortal remains, let us tarry awhile. It goes without saying that the greater a person’s notoriety, the greater the likelihood he will be sliced up post mortem and become part of a collection (or two). And this is exactly what happened to Napoleon. The story of the imperial hair is doubtless the best known.

Napoleon’s brother was in the habit of saying that there was enough supposed imperial hair around to be woven into a huge carpet. In passing, it is worth noting that Napoleon had generously given locks of his hair to his nearest and dearest, as well as to a few admirers. As it turned out this was most prescient since scientists were later able to assay arsenic in the hair and to infer that there had been suspicious amounts in the imperial body. But that’s another (forensic) story.


The Murder of Marat by Charlotte Corday, 13th July 1793.
Oil on canvas by Jean-Jacques Hauer (1751-1829). Musée Lambinet,
Versailles, France. © Giraudon/Bridgeman Giraudon.
Inset: the skull of Charlotte Corday, photograph taken from La
Donna Delinquente, La Prostituta e la Donna Normale [The Female
Offender, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman] by Cesare Lombroso
(1835-1909), a late 19th-century criminology study (unbearably
sexist by present-day standards).

The founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology and a social Darwinist, he claimed that criminality was inherited, and that a “born female criminal” could
be identified by physical defects, such as excessive body hair, wrinkles, and an abnormal cranium.

And what of the other imperial bits and bobs?Well, during the autopsy, Dr Antommarchi secreted in the pocket of his large white apron two rib fragments and a tendon, not to mention a piece of the “imperial penis,” which he gave to the priest who had administered the last rites to the Emperor, the Abbé Vignali. Quite what was going through the good doctor’s mind when offering a piece of imperial genitalia to a man of God is anyone’s guess. Themedically preserved penile relic remained in the Abbé’s family until 1969, when it was auctioned at Christie’s for the trifling sum of thirty-eight thousand euros to an American urologist by the name of John K. Lattimer, who kept it in a safety-deposit box at the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York. And what would it fetch today? No need perhaps for wild speculation since Dr Lattimer died two years ago and it may only be a matter of time before this curio of Napoleonic masculinity once more finds its way into an auction house.


Mozart’s teeth, showing a caries in a molar tooth (2nd from left), confirming the authenticity of the skull retrieved from the communal grave by the anatomist Joseph Hyrtl in 1842.

The skull is now kept at the Mozarteum University of Music and Dramatic Arts in Salzburg, Austria.
© akg-images/Gilles Mermet.


René Descartes (1596-1650) “before and after.” All the French hail after Descartes, fondly dubbing themselves “Cartesian,” ie, arch-rationalists. This is the portrait and
the skull of the author of the Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s
Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences and of the celebrated phrase: “Cogito
ergo sum”: I think, therefore I am.

Left: Portrait of René Descartes by Frans Hals (1582-1666). Musée du Louvre, Paris. © Giraudon/
Bridgeman Giraudon. Right: Descartes’ skull, at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France.
© MNHN – D. Ponsard.

Judging by the success of auctions of Napoleonic body parts (one of his teeth went for twenty thousand euros in 2005), these relics and bones of the good and the great are not merely memento mori (literally, “remember that you must die”), curios of dubious taste suspended in time (and perhaps in formaldehyde) for lovers of the macabre. Strange though it may seem, illustrious remains aremuch in the news. Not too long ago Mozart’s skull made the headlines. As for its authenticity, the owner pointed to a decayed tooth and reminded one and all that Mozart was complaining of toothache shortly before he died. No doubts there then.

Only last year, the French government seriously envisaged organizing (yet another) transfer of Descartes’ skull, this time from the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, where it has been held for thirty years, to the school in Touraine where the philosopher had studied as a boy. Historians were outraged that the authorities were more concerned with displaying the skull than with reuniting it with his skeleton, held in the Parisian church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. What’s more, no comparison of DNAs from the two had been planned. In the end the plan was shelved.

_ Fetishistic forefathers?
Of course, to our eyes, all these relics have something repugnant about them and we find it hard to understand what prompted our forebears to horde bits of skin and bone and teeth. Yet little by little, as science has advanced, our view of these organic relics has changed. They now seem precious, because they may contain the DNA, the unique and virtually indestructible identity card of the individual from whom they came. In a way, these relics are proof of the existence of a form of everlasting life.

Studies on the DNA of organic relics has many a time resolved historical mysteries. If someone hadn’t kept a polyp from Anna Anderson, who spent her whole life claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, one of the daughters of Nicholas II, the Tsar of Russia murdered with his whole family at Yekaterinburg on 17 July 1918, it wouldn’t have been possible to prove that she was, in fact, unrelated to the Romanovs.


Fragment of the heart of Louis XVII, son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, the 10-yearold heir to the throne of France who died in the Temple Prison in Paris on June 8, 1795. His royal parents were guillotined.

Carved crystal reliquary kept at St Denis Basilica, north of Paris. © SIPA.

If the heart of a boy (the heir to the French throne, Louis XVII) who died in the Temple Prison during the French Revolution had not been kept, together with hairs from the head of Marie- Antoinette, it would have been impossible to prove that the child was indeed the queen’s son. And had not fervent admirers of Beethoven got hold of some threads of the composer’s hair, science would never have been able to discover that he was probably afflicted by chronic lead poisoning, which may explain his notorious mood swings.

Then there is the story of Neil Armstrong, commander of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission and the first man to walk on the moon. A while ago he realized that his barber was cleaning up at every trim. Marx Sizemore, the owner of Marx’s Barber Shop in Lebanon, Ohio, was keeping Armstrong’s hair to sell to collectors, in one case for three thousand dollars. Incensed, Armstrong took legal action against the barber, who claimed to have sold the hair to an agent of John Reznikoff, an American listed by GuinnessWorld Records as the owner of the world’s largest collection of hair from famous people. Insured for a million dollars, the collection includes 115 locks from illustrious figures including Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, John Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley, and, of course, Napoleon.


The new cult of relics: Blue LifeGem© diamonds obtained from cremains (cremated remains), destined, for example, to be made into memorial jewelry for a bereaved pet owner.

Photo courtesy of LifeGem Europe BV (www.lifegemeurope.com).

Perhaps then we are a tad hasty in expressing disgust at our ancestors’ penchant for “tidbits” of the famous. Readers would do well to remember that there are companies in America, Russia, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom that create diamonds from the ashes of their clients’ dearly departed. Ash contains carbon; diamond is nothing but. So, under conditions that “recreate the forces of nature”—months at extreme pressure (6 x109 Pascals, ie, 60 million times atmospheric pressure) and high temperature (1600-2000°C)—carbon from the cremated remains (shortened to “cremains”) of a loved one or a pet can be converted to diamond. Ashes to ashes, dust to diamond…that is the new fad in terms of relics.Which puts a whole new slant on the Marilyn Monroe song: diamonds really could be “a girl’s best friend.” And not just cremated remains. Hair too. In 2006, one of these companies created three diamonds from ten strands of Beethoven’s hair (plus a pinch or two of exogenous carbon) from the collection of—yes, that’s right—John Reznikoff. Is turning loved ones into brooches, pendants, or perhaps body piercing jewelry really that different from making a ring from Descartes’ bones?

Who now dares smile superciliously at the foibles of those 18th-century eccentrics who sought to preserve their great men in the form of drinking vessels with which to toast the nation’s health? Far from being laughable, these practices bore witness to a profound truth: from time immemorial men and women have shared a craving for immortality. _