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The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Housesby Paul Koudounaris
Synopses & Reviews
It is sometimes said that death is the last taboo, but it was not always so. For centuries, religious establishments constructed decorated ossuaries and charnel houses that stand as masterpieces of art created from human bone. These unique structures have been pushed into the footnotes of history; they were part of a dialogue with death that is now silent.
The sites in this specially photographed and brilliantly original study range from the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Palermo, where the living would visit mummified or skeletal remains and lovingly dress them; to the Paris catacombs; to fantastic bone-encrusted creations in Austria, Cambodia, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Italy, Peru, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and elsewhere.
Paul Koudounaris photographed more than seventy sites for this book. He analyzes the role of these remarkable memorials within the cultures that created them, as well as the mythology and folklore that developed around them, and skillfully traces a remarkable human endeavor.
"'Morbid elegance is puzzling to modern eyes,' declares Koudounaris as he commences this global journey celebrating the macabre through a socio-cultural history of charnel houses and ossuaries. 'Little by little, the dead cease to exist,' professed French sociologist Jean Baudrillard; we no longer ritualize beyond immediate requirements, as death — and the body itself — according to Koudounaris are now decidedly 'abject.' Koudounaris takes the reader to a time when the skull was not only 'an object of veneration,' but a sobering reminder of mortality and a symbol of the belief that death brings eternal life. Ancient crypts were 'imbued with the idea of salvation' and through Koudounaris' awesome photographs, readers are given 'an opportunity to affirm life by embracing death.' Early 17th century Italian tombs became increasingly elaborate as 'macabre dÃ©cor' proved oddly lucrative, and the tale of the 19th century exhumation of the CimetiÃ¨re des Innocents to form the famed Paris catacombs, or 'l'Empire de la Morte,' is particularly fascinating. Highlighting the importance of the conservation and restoration of such relics, Koudounaris' passion for and knowledge of the topic is undeniable, alluding to a historical 'epidemic lack of concern' that must be rectified if these mesmerizing masterpieces are to retain their 'spiritual and artistic value.' His scholarly curiosity has constructed a dark yet dazzling dialogue that deserves to be heard by many — 'the dead were not expected to be mute.' Photos and illus. (Oct.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Book News Annotation:
Jaw-dropping. It's impossible to remain neutral or unmoved by the images, and the writing is so engaging and thoroughly researched it would stand solidly on its own. Koudounaris is an art historian based in Los Angeles. He visited and photographed roughly 70 sites located all over the world. The sites share a purpose: they contain huge numbers of human bones--deliberately assembled for reasons including religion, a wish to honor war dead, a belief in maintaining connections with the deceased, among others, which the author explains in his informative text. The volume is oversize--physically (9.25x12.5") and also in the level of its impact and achievement. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From bone fetishism in the ancient world to painted skulls in Austria and Bavaria: an unusual and compelling work of cultural history.
About the Author
Based in Los Angeles, Paul Koudounaris has a doctorate in art history from UCLA.
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