"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": The relics of a scientific saint

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

Most Americans probably associate the collecting of relics with the Catholic Church, and particularly with the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages—a time when shards of saints' bones and pieces of the true cross were big business, basically creating the West's first tourism industry.*

But hoarding and gawking at pieces of dead heroes is a human hobby with far older roots and a much broader appeal. It's been done all over the world, certainly since antiquity if not before, and it's not even exclusively associated with religion. This is one of those weird urges that just seems to be somehow intrinsically linked to how humans do culture.

Which brings us to these fingers. They belong not to a Catholic saint, but to Galileo Galilei, father of astronomy and (at the time of his death) condemned Catholic heretic. Because of the whole heresy thing, Galileo had to be buried in a back corner of the basilica where his family graves were. But, a hundred years later, after his reputation had considerably improved, fans disinterred his body and reburied it in a much more prominent spot. And, while they were at it, they cut off three fingers and removed a tooth. And started displaying all four bits in reliquaries like this.

Previously, Pesco told you about how two of the fingers actually went missing for 100 years, before turning up in 2009 when an anonymous donor turned them over to the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy. Today, you can see all the relics of this secular saint on display there.

Thanks to Lauren Kinsman and Karen Ackroff who both submitted this exhibit separately. The photo I've used here, showing two of the fingers, was taken by Lauren Kinsman.

*In regards to true cross relics, there's a great John Calvin quote about there being enough pieces of the true cross in circulation that, if you brought them all together, you could build Noah's Ark. This is probably the only time John Calvin was ever funny. And I'm sure he felt bad about it.


  1. Love the fact that relics can belong to secular saints: visits to graves of writers and painters are frequent, almost as if –by touching something close to the dead flesh of a talented person — one might acquire some of their gifts! :}

    Humans have apparently not progressed far beyond eating the flesh of our conquered  adversaries to gain their skill and strength.

  2. I believe I saw this. I know I saw Galileo’s tomb in Florence. It was pretty cool. I had this exchange with the docent:

    “Galileo is buried there?”


    “But wasn’t he excommunicated?”


    “Then how was he buried here IN the church?”

    “The Medici family paid to have him here.”

    “Soooo the Medici family had more money than god?” *ba-dum ching”

    1. Galileo’s tomb is in Santa Croce (sort of the Florentine Westminster Abbey) — the finger is in the Museo Galileo — I was just in Florence a couple of weeks ago and saw both.

      However, the fancy tomb actually has nothing to do with his Medici patrons — it is actually is his second resting place — he was reburied there in the 1700s after science was cool and the Florentines wanted to remind the world that was obsessed with Newton that Galileo was first.

      1. Yes, I RTA, but I was just surprised they didn’t chuck him in an unmarked grave, given his status.

        I have been to Santa Croce. Man – I can’t remember if we saw the Museo Galileo. I saw soooo many finger relics, I may be confusing it with another.

      1. I stand corrected. While on the subject, this is a pretty good write up by an apologist on the issue. I’ve read and known for awhile that Galileo’s problems were from meddling in theology, not as much his science. And of course politics were involved.


        (ETA: No idea if the rest of the site is good, I skimmed through and saw it echoed what I had read before.)

        For the TLDR –
        The Catholic Church never opposed the heliocentric theory invented by Nicolaus Copernicus and held as truth by Galileo Galilei. The inquisition of Galileo was on theological grounds alone, because he blurred the lines between science and religion, by stepping outside his role as a scientist and attempting to reinterpret Scripture. His final condemnation came after writing a book that appeared to insult the pope.

        1. Sick and tired of people trying to rewrite history to make the Catholic church look better.

          With the loss of many of his defenders in Rome because of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo was ordered to stand trial on suspicion of heresy in 1633, “for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the sun is the
          center of the world”,


          The Catholic church said that heliocentrism is heresy and that’s what Galileo was tried for.  Open and shut.

          Edit: More from the Roman Inquisition article on wiki:

          The Holy Office also had an international group of consultants, experienced scholars of theology and canon law, who advised it on specific questions. In 1616 these consultants gave their assessment of the propositions that the Sun is immobile and at the center of the universe and that the Earth moves around it, judging both to be “foolish and absurd in philosophy,” and the first to be “formally heretical” and the second “at least erroneous in faith” in theology.


        2. From the link you give:

          The Catholic Church never officially condemned Copernicus’ theory of heliocentricity. It did condemn one of Galileo’s statements that the sun is the center of the universe. On that point, the Catholic Church was actually right.

          This is apologetic dressing. Heliocentric means sun-centred, and it would be a long time before anyone proposed another centre besides the earth or sun. So even from this link, it seems plain the Catholic church did condemn the science involved, whether other speculations gave them the excuse or not.

          What is curious to me is why people still defend them, even after Pope John Paul II admitted and apologized for the mistake.

  3. What is it about this piece of this dead human on public display that makes it “a human hobby with far older roots and a much broader appeal” and “one of those weird urges that just seems to be somehow intrinsically linked to how humans do culture” – instead of historical racism?
    – The relatively similar skin colors of the subject and exhibitors?
    – The closer geographic proximity of the subject and the exhibitors?
    – The smaller size of the piece on display?
    – The historical importance of the subject?

    1. How about this: 

      In examples like this and the bishop’s rectum, there’s something unique and weird going on that makes the body part worth preserving and viewing. A medical malady that doctors wanted to preserve and study. A famous person that people want to remember. 

      Whereas, with the example of the taxidermy done on African and Middle Eastern people in the 19th century, the very fact that those people existed (and looked soooo exotic!) was reason enough to stuff them and mount them and display them in a context normally reserved for animals. 

      If you don’t see the difference, you’re being willfully obtuse. 

      1. I’m not being obtuse. I’m sincerely trying to identify the reason(s) why people see differences and make value judgements between various displays of dead people. If it’s a famous person that people want to remember, then that’s exactly what I proposed with “the historical importance of the subject” right? Are you claiming that distinction makes all the difference?

        Because if it just needs to be “unique and weird” then that would seem to encompass all of these exhibits, and explain why they (and this series of posts) were done in the first place. They all tickle the same “circus side show / freak show” fascination.

        1. The historical and subject matter make all the difference. A “relic”, is just that. A piece of the whole that can be saved. They want to preserve a part of someone they respect – from holy men and women, to distinguished people. WHO that person is makes all the difference.  This goes the same for the hand full of mummies of saints and people like Lenin.

          No one is cutting off fingers and saving them for 500 years from Mario the Cobbler of Florence. And for the sake of arguement, let’s say the family did cut off a finger – that finger is not generally going to survive 500 years. There is no attachment or reverence. (“That’s great-grandfather Mario’s finger. He cobbled Galileo’s sidewalk, don’t you know.”)

          By contrast, those stuffed humans you were referring to are done so because of their representation of their people. Then you have the German guy plasticizing people. They are there as representatives of the human race, showing off body parts.

          1. So the veneration of an individual – Galileo, Lenin, Catholic saints, etc – transforms a crude & racist practice (“showing off body parts”) into something culturally acceptable or even admirable? Isn’t the photo of Galileo’s fingers at the top of this post a perfect example of exactly that – showing off body parts?

          2. I guess it is a matter of taste whether one decides what is and is not crude. I am not sure where one draws a line – I can think of several generally accepted items: real skeletons and skulls, mummies (modern and ancient), and body parts saved for medical knowledge (as well as cadavers for med students). All of these are ‘showing off body parts’ and perfectly fine.

            The plasticized bodies exhibits has it’s critics, but it is hardly taboo.  Again – body parts on display.

            I guess your hang up is with the stuffed human exhibits from the 1800s?  I don’t think of it as being particularly racist. As  Maggie said, these people were just as exotic and mysterious as a lion. Assuming they weren’t killed only for the purpose of being displayed like a trophy, it is certainly bad taste and ‘disrespectiful’ of the dead under modern sensibilities – but not necessisarily racist. 

          3. I actually don’t have any hang-ups about this stuff. (I’m not very interested in seeing the plasticized bodies, but that’s a matter of personal taste.) But I commented on the issue because of the seemingly contradictory judgements being made by the author. It was Maggie who (in a previous post of this series) called the stuffed human from the 1800s “historical racism.”

            Personally my thinking is very similar to yours – humans are intrigued by the unique, the different, and yes the exotic. People also tend to rubberneck when passing a car accident. The element of death (talk about unknowably exotic!) only makes it more taboo and compelling. I believe that is more than sufficient to understand why ALL of these things were originally done (and why we are still discussing them today) without applying modern values to decisions made 100-200 years ago.

      2. I’ve seen an exhibit (and you may have, as well, Maggie, since you’ve visited the HMNH) that shows a human skeleton (of unspecified origin, indiscernible to a lay observer) next to the skeletons of other several other living species of apes.  In its context, it’s a reference standard, to make apparently the similarities to the skeletons of our assorted evolutionary cousins.  For some reason, we treat skeletons differently than taxidermy mounts, perhaps because we’re accustomed to seeing them in classrooms as educational aids; mounted skeletons are not traditionally the exclusive reserve of animals.  There’s an adjoining exhibit of taxidermied specimens of apes, from which humans are absent; in fairness, if you want to see what a human skin looks like, there are generally several wandering around the room, if somewhat hidden by clothing, whereas our skeletons are typically completely obscured by flesh at all times.

        Really, human skeletons, distinct from skins, are exotic chiefly in that they’re generally obscured, whether by flesh or tomb.  Generic, unidentified reference skeletons are otherwise unremarkable, though, not unique or weird.  Indeed, the message to the audience is, “This is what you look like, under your flesh.”  Of course, there are museums — the Mütter Museum comes most readily to mind — which have the unique and weird.

  4. Some branches (most? all?) of Buddhism preserve relics of famous monks, often pearl-like nodules found in their cremation ashes.

    There are currently several sets of these relics on tour around the world: http://www.maitreyaproject.org/en/relic/

    You can, if you wish, get blessed by nodules of pure religious merit.

  5. I’m not into the whole relic thing (except for my own scraps of long abandoned projects), but there’s something evocative about this particular one. That could be the finger that pointed toward Jupiter, as he showed others how to use his telescope to see another planetary system, or mountains on the moon, or the crescent Venus. E pur si muove …

    In the 190+ responses to 2012 Edge question “What is your favorite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?” Galileo is mentioned more frequently than anyone but for Einstein, Darwin, and Watson/Crick. And these luminaries would be much less well known without Galileo.

    1. That could be the finger that pointed toward Jupiter

      Indeed, as the inscription says:
      “Leipsana ne spernas digiti, quo dextera coeli Mensa vias, nunquam visos mortalibus orbes Mostravit, parvo fragilis molimine vitri Ausa prior facinus, cui non Titania quondam Sufficit pubes congestis montibus altis Nequidquam superas conata ascendere in arces.”

      Or, “This is the finger from the glorious hand that covered the heavens and showed their immense space. It pointed to new stars with the marvellous glass instrument and revealed them to the senses. And thus it was able to reach what Titania could never attain.”

  6. My cousin studied in Padua and presented his final dissertation in the room where Galileo’s vertebra is displayed. I sat near the case and it _was_ a bit strange.

    I graduated a few years later in a different room, the Aula di Medicina, who is more ancient (14th century), larger and more richly decorated, but you know, no Galileo.

  7. In regards to true cross relics, there’s a great John Calvin quote about there being enough pieces of the true cross in circulation that, if you brought them all together, you could build Noah’s Ark.

    At one time there were several of John the Baptist’s heads in existence, and at least two right hands. Not to mention this:

    “That’s the skull of John the Baptist.”
    “What about the small one?”
    “That’s his skull when he was a boy.”

    1. There are enough of those around to build a . . .

      According to Leo Allatius, there was enough to form the rings around Saturn.

      I’m a little surprised that no-one has said ‘magnifico’ (oh oh oh oh) yet.

  8. Galileo was never found guilty of heresy.   The result of the trial was only that he was “vehemently suspect of heresy” ( http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/galileo/condemnation.html ) for which he was put under house arrest.  Interestingly, only 7 of the 10 judges approved the decision.

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