Chopin’s heart exhumed in secret ceremony at Warsaw church

Scientists, politicians and the Archbishop of Warsaw have exhumed the preserved heart of Frederic Chopin in a midnight ceremony.

Plaque marking the pillar holding Chopin's heart

The official inspection of the Romantic composer's heart was organised following warnings that the organ might have started to deteriorate. 

When Chopin died in 1849 his body was buried in Paris but his heart was taken to Warsaw, as requested by the composer on his deathbed. The heart was sealed in what is believed to have been a jar of cognac and smuggled into the Polish city before being interred in a pillar at the Holy Cross Church (pictured above ).

A team of experts, including scientists, officials and the Archbishop of Warsaw, went to the church just before midnight on 14 April this year to remove the heart for an inspection.

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The 13 people present at the exhumation were sworn to secrecy and details of the unusual gathering were only released in September.

Tadeusz Dobosz, a forensic scientist present at the inspection, said: “The spirit of this night was very sublime.”

The team took hundreds of photographs, carried out an inspection of the composer’s heart and added hot wax to the jar’s seal to prevent further evaporation of the original preservative liquid. The Archbishop said prayers over the heart before it was returned to its resting place in the pillar.

Chopin experts have long been keen to carry out tests on the composer’s heart to try and find out whether he died of tuberculosis, as is generally believed. But the Polish church and government have been reluctant to give permission. This inspection was only sanctioned after a scientist warned that the alcohol containing the organ might have evaporated after all these years.

None of the photos taken at the exhumation have been released, however. “We don’t want this to be a media sensation with photos of the heart in the newspapers,” explained Artur Szklener, director of the Frederic Chopin Institute. But a reporter for Associated Press was shown the photos which they described as showing the organ: "an enlarged white lump submerged in an amber-coloured fluid in a crystal jar”.

Some experts have been critical of the lack of transparency surrounding the exhumation. Steven Lagerberg, who has written a book on the composer, told Associated Press he wished genetic tests had been carried out on the heart. “The mystery of this man's illness lingers on — how he could survive for so long with such a chronic illness and how he could write pieces of such extraordinary beauty,” Lagerberg said. “It's an intellectual puzzle, it's a medical mystery and it's an issue of great scientific curiosity.”

But the culture minister present on 14 April, Bogdan Zdrojewski said: “We in Poland often say that Chopin died longing for his homeland. Additional information which could possibly be gained about his death would not be enough of a reason to disturb Chopin's heart.”

Curious scientists will now have to wait until the next inspection - due in 50 years' time.