The undeniably beautiful 130-year-old body of Bernadette Soubirous is on display in a specially designed crystal coffin in a chapel in the abbey where she was a nun. Her eerily realistic face, clad in a nun's robe, is one of the most common illustrations of incorruptible saints whose bodies never decay. After her death she was exhumed no less than three times and was found to be perfectly intact each time, which makes it odd that the famously beautiful face and hands were actually made of wax.
Saint Bernadette began her life relatively recently, by sainthood standards, growing up in Victorian France. The eldest daughter of a poor family, she battled illness all her life.
Her fame began at the age of 14 in Lourdes, with a series of appearances by a young woman mistaken for the Virgin Mary, now known as Our Lady of Lourdes. The apparition appeared eighteen times, occasionally giving the young girl small encouragements and, above all, pointing out to her the source of the healing waters. Bernadette reported her appearances, and her appearance as a devoutly innocent, somewhat simple young woman – not to mention her exceptional beauty – may have helped to fuel her reputation and encourage the repetition of her accounts.
The apparition of Lourdes called for the sanctuary which was built on the site of the grotto, which today is one of the most popular Christian places of pilgrimage. It is also a place of miraculous healings, which receives between four and six million visitors a year. Miraculous healings began during Bernadette's lifetime and have been attributed to spring water. Although several miracles turned out to be short-lived cures or outright hoaxes, many more were confirmed at the time, and claims continue to this day.
Bernadette herself moved away from Lourdes and joined a convent in Nevers, where she lived the rest of her life. She died in 1879 of tuberculosis.
As part of the canonization process, her body was exhumed three times, in 1909, 1919 and finally in 1925 when it was transferred to the crystal coffin. His body was declared officially "incorrupt" by the Church, but it seems that the conditions for obtaining this term were somewhat lax. In the words of the attending physician in 1919: "The body is practically mummified, covered with patches of mold and a rather noticeable layer of salts, which appear to be calcium salts. The skin has disappeared in some places, but it is still present on most parts of the body."
After some ribs were removed to be sent to Rome asrelics, it was decided that the "blackish color" of his face might be off-putting to pilgrims, and so a "light wax mask" was in order. Her new face and new hands were designed by Pierre Imans, a fashion model designer in Paris.
The body is exhibited in the Saint-Gidard chapel of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers. Visitors should remember that this is a working chapel and a holy place for many.
It should be noted that after the first exhumation, 30 years after his death, the body was largely intact. The (unintentional) mishandling of the nuns who washed the body had negative consequences during the second exhumation, ten years later. The effect was even more disastrous during the third and final exhumation, six years later. If Bernadette had been left alone, she might still have been "incorrupt".