Synopses & Reviews
Death has never looked so beautiful. The fully articulated skeleton of a female saint, dressed in an intricate costume of silk brocade and gold lace, withered fingers glittering with colorful rubies, emeralds, and pearls—this is only one of the specially photographed relics featured in Heavenly Bodies
In 1578 news came of the discovery in Rome of a labyrinth of underground tombs, which were thought to hold the remains of thousands of early Christian martyrs. Skeletons of these supposed saints were subsequently sent to Catholic churches and religious houses in German-speaking Europe to replace holy relics that had been destroyed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. The skeletons, known as “the catacomb saints,” were carefully reassembled, richly dressed in fantastic costumes, wigs, crowns, jewels, and armor, and posed in elaborate displays inside churches and shrines as reminders to the faithful of the heavenly treasures that awaited them after death. Paul Koudounaris gained unprecedented access to religious institutions to reveal these fascinating historical artifacts. Hidden for over a century as Western attitudes toward both the worship of holy relics and death itself changed, some of these ornamented skeletons appear in publication here for the first time.
"Koudounaris (The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses) provides the largely forgotten story of the katakombenheiligen, skeletons unearthed from Roman catacombs, intricately adorned with jewels and worshiped as martyrs, along with 90 extraordinary color photographs. The 'saints,' though essentially unverified, buoyed Catholic spirits in German-speaking regions during the uncertainty of the Protestant Reformation and were unceremoniously abandoned with embarrassment by the early 19th century. These supposed-sacred remains served as protectors and patron saints as well as generated massive profits in donation. They were credited with miracle cures and all sorts of healing from breaking a fever to reviving the dead. Lovers prayed to a skeletal St. Valentine whereas St. Maximus was venerated by the poor. Koudounaris examines the 'slipshod' process used by Church officials to authenticate the relics as martyrs. He also details their restoration and decoration, most notably the handiwork of Dominican nuns in Ennetach and master goldsmith Adalbart Eder. Some of the striking images include St. Deodatus in armor seated on a throne, a wax face mask concealing his skull and St. Gratian dressed in Roman military attire designed by Eder. Finally, Koudounaris recounts the backlash against the relics by Protestants and Catholics alike and their unfortunate fates. The images of the catacomb saints are dazzling, almost beyond belief, and their story captures an interesting moment of uncertainty in the Catholic Church and even some insight into the psychology of worship. 105 illus. (Oct.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
An intriguing visual history of the veneration in European churches and monasteries of bejeweled and decorated skeletons
About the Author
Paul Koudounaris, author of The Empire of Death, has a doctorate in art history from University of California, Los Angeles. He lives in Los Angeles.