You might’ve worried about becoming a simple, forgotten pile of bones buried underground long after your death, but these ‘catacomb saints’ clearly had nothing to fret over, for they have been given the coolest skeletal makeovers one can ask for!
Paul Koudounaris, an author and photographer from Los Angeles, happened to be the one to discover these jewels of the past in his travel to a German village while working on an entirely different project. It is almost a typical horror-movie-scenario, how a villager approached him asking if he wanted to see a bejeweled skeleton in a dilapidated church holding a goblet of what seemed like blood, and how Koudounaris, equal parts scared and enchanted, followed him into the woods. It was there that the chain of exploration began, and he uncovered a number of such relics in different parts of Europe, mostly Germany. Clearly, these weren’t just a local fancy or a freak show; these peculiar dressed-up skeletons hid stories of a shadowed past.
The mysterious identification of catholicism’s martyrs
In his book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, Koudounaris documented the journey of the structures of bones from Roman catacombs to hallowed altars to forgotten corners and back rooms. It all started in the Roman catacombs (underground burial places) of 1578, where countless skeletal remains were discovered, believed to be those of Christians persecuted for practicing the religion in a time when it was outlawed.
The skeletons became a source of wonder and reverence for the Catholic Church, which titled them ‘sacred relics’ in Northern Europe- especially Germany- belonging to Christian martyrs, victims of the Protestant Revolution that had flamed an anti-Catholic sentiment. They were slowly transported to Catholic churches in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, sent out by the Vatican. But how did the church know that the pile of bones was really a departed, holy Christian soul and not just another citizen?
Well, the Vatican had its ways. For one, if they found the letter ‘m’ engraved beside a skeleton, they took it to mean ‘martyr’. If any vials turned up with the bones, they assumed it to be the martyr’s blood, rather than perfume, which the Romans often left on graves. And of course, there were the psychics, who would journey through the catacombs and detect the martyrs whose bones apparently emitted “a golden glow and a sweet smell”.
With such a nebulous process of identification, you can bet that some mistakes did happen in determining which skeleton was holy. But it was what they represented, and not who they had been in real life, that mattered most to those who glorified them.
A bumpy history of glory and shame
The holy bodies became wildly sought-after treasures. The churches could make a sort of “claim to victory” in the past with these prized relics, and wealthy families, guilds, and fraternities sought to adopt a martyr to become their patron of sorts.
The skeletons would then go through quite the cleansing and decorating process. Skilled nuns and monks prepared them for their grand public appearance by wrapping the bones in fine mesh gauze and enshrouding them in gold, gems, and expensive fabric. They even often slipped their own rings onto the skeletal fingers, to add a personal touch. The pride and sense of worship they felt shone through in the way they upheld the high status of the martyrs.
The modernization of the world, however, seemed to bring about a fall from grace. The corpses began to be seen as a reflection of our times of ‘barbarity’ and ‘primitive nature’. In the late 18th century, Austria’s Emperor Joseph II, a man of the Enlightenment, ordered that all relics that were superstitious and lacked a definite provenance should be thrown out. Of course, the martyrs were very ambiguously identified, so they were soon torn down from their posts, locked away in boxes or cellars, or plundered for their jewels. People’s faith received a blow when their revered protectors and icons of hope were humiliated like this, but a better time was to come.
Despite their vague religious importance, they were still some of the finest pieces of art ever created. For those that survived the test of destructive time, Koudounaris’s photographs and stories have once again ignited the desire to preserve the past and let them shine as works of art with incredible meaning behind them.
Celebrating in churches and beyond
From the disassembled, boxed up bones in a German church to one in the back of a parking-garage storage unit in Switzerland, these souls sure have seen some strange times. But they are still venerated beauties that people are mesmerized by and that serve as a celebration of everything the community has conquered in the past.
The Waldsassen Basilica is the most famous resting place for a total of 12 jeweled skeletons that adorn its halls abundantly, and are a source of fascination at the Holy Bodies Fest, celebrated by the church every year. The beautiful Saint Munditia rests in all her ancient glory in Munich’s oldest church, St. Peter’s Church, where her martyrdom is celebrated with a yearly feast. Fürstenfeldbruck houses Saint Hyacinth of Caesarea and Saint Clemens, laden with gold and jewels and surrounded by amazing tapestries, carvings, and paintings in the church.
We can’t be grateful enough to Paul Koudounaris, who travelled to the farthest extents of Europe to painstakingly photograph and uncover these forgotten relics once again. As much as we may think “the past is in the past”, such historically significant stories and objects will never fail to astonish us, don’t you agree?