Louis XIV in his coronation robes.

On this Sunday of the year 1660, at La Celle-Roubaud, a minuscule village in Provence which is preparing to live a prodigious event, there is great joy in the air…

In a moment, King Louis XIV in person is going to make his entrance into the church, accompanied by Madame his Mother, the religious Anne of Austria, and a brilliant and numerous suite.  It is the Queen Mother who has advised this detour via La Celle-Roubaud.  But why go into this isolated village when, at a short distance from there, the venerable walls of Thoronet, the pearl of Roman Abbeys, is ready to welcome the young King and his suite for their Vespers?

Using his long walking stick with the engraved pommel, the King has just entered the church and is now walking slowly towards the main altar.  He bows, imitated by the whole suite, as he passes in front of the tabernacle, then, guided by the parish’s Curate, he approaches a shrine situated to the right of the choir.  A heavy chest in gilded wood, entirely covered by a plate of glass, shelters an open coffin.

Certain bodies remain intact after death. This is the head of Saint Sebastien, in his glass coffin, at Puebla, Mexico.

In the coffin is the cadaver of a sixty-year-old woman.

The skin of the face is smooth and satiny, a slightly pink coloration tints the surface of the cheekbones and hands.  The long, slim, ivory-coloured hands appear alive.  The lowered eyelids, the pink mouth slightly open, the supreme calm of her features, all appear to indicate that this woman dressed in a nun’s habit, is plunged into a sort of lethargic sleep.

Is it really a cadaver?  Has a supremely gifted embalmer succeeded in conserving this appearance of unheard-of freshness to the body?  The young King, who for the moment is alone with his mother looking at it, is astonished, amazed.  He questions the Curate, and then a member of his suite who is dressed in a severe, black suit.  He is again told that the cadaver of this nun, Roseline de Villeneuve, has been in this state of conservation since 17 January 1329 precisely.  For more than three centuries.

The fascinated King has trouble dragging himself from his contemplation.  He slowly moves in the direction of the sacristy.

There, the Curate who has preceded him again, presents a silver reliquary to him…

Lying on a small cushion of pale silk, there are two spheric objects whose view provokes a brief backward movement in the Queen Mother.  These two objects are the dead woman’s eyes…  They have the exact appearance of eyes that have just been taken from a living face:  slightly shiny, they have a completely limpid brilliance.  And above all, they appear to show a human sentiment, whose precise meaning remains mysterious, however.

Troubled, the King turns toward his doctor and murmurs:

“Do you think that it is possible?…”

“For God, nothing is impossible,”

replies in an oppressed voice, the King’s doctor, Antoine Vallot, who shortly beforehand had saved the life of the seriously ill King.

The King remains motionless for a moment then suddenly straightens.

“I want this eye, the left one, to be pricked twice…  And then we shall truly see if they are real eyes!”

Despite his repugnance, Vallot scarcely tergiverses.  For the last few months, all of Louis’ injunctions are delivered in a new tone of voice…  The one which is suited to the most absolute monarch in the History of France.

He pricks twice on either side of the iris.  Which immediately shrivels and loses its brilliance while a bit of pink humour escapes from the eye.

Appalled, the King takes a step backwards.  He has to admit the miracle.  This nun’s body, like the eyes which had been detached from it, has remained for three hundred years in a state of total incorruptibility.

What do the documents say?

The body of Sister Catherine Laboure, which has not been embalmed, shows no trace of corruption, after more than a century.

The nun, Roseline de Villeneuve, dies on the morning of 17 January 1329, without leaving any exceptional memories behind her.  During the few days that her remains are exposed, some spontaneous cures apparently occur.

But what particularly strikes the observers, is the cadaver’s appearance.

This sixty-year-old woman has been dead for days, and her cadaver conserves all its suppleness, the eyes have kept all their brilliance, and none of the usual signs of the decomposition which follows death can be seen.

Roseline is buried anyway in the little, sloping cemetery of La Celle-Roubaud, but this prodigy is of course discussed in the surrounding countryside.

However, it takes five years before the decision is taken to exhume her on 11 June 1334.

When the extremely damaged oak lid is taken off, there is stupefaction and fear:  despite the great humidity of the ground which lines the tomb, the cadaver appears to be in a state of perfect conservation.  It is even rapidly discovered that it had absolutely not changed since the moment of her funeral.  Her eyes, which are still as limpid, are then removed and placed in a reliquary.  The body itself is placed in the shrine which is contemplated three centuries later by Louis XIV.

During the Revolution, this singular relic escaped the destruction ordered by the Comite de Salut public.

Around one hundred years later, Roseline de Villeneuve’s body, which is still in this state of unlikely conservation, will be transferred, this time into a marble and glass shrine.

Abbot Arnaud, the Curate of Arcs, the big town of which La Celle-Roubaud is a dependency, recounts in a book which he publishes in 1887, how this operation unfolded.

The Bishop of the Var, Monsignor Michel, assisted by four doctors, lengthily notes the suppleness of the members, the perfect freshness and elasticity of Roseline’s skin.  The medical report notably indicates:

“The cadaver’s foot is fresh and flexible, the flesh depresses and rises again under pressure from fingers.”

And then suddenly, in 1887, insects attack this body which was so fabulously conserved.

Embalmers and chemists are rushed from Rome;  but on 6 July 1894, it is a poor mummy, shrivelled and dry, that is placed in the new, hermetically sealed shrine.  And that is what can be seen today.

The eyes that had been placed in the reliquary decomposed at the same rhythm as the body before the intervention of the embalmers…

Everything is therefore over, there is no more miracle.

But how do we explain this body’s prodigious resistance to all corruption for five hundred-and-sixty-five years?

To be continued.

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