Art historian Paul Koudounaris has just published a book about fake saints' skeletons. These macabre faux relics were created in the 1500s by Catholic authorities during the Counter-Reformation. They reveal the oddly literal-minded and powerful Catholic tradition with which Luther contended, since these jewel-encrusted skeletons were supposedly saintly remains (although they weren't), and the gold and jewel decorations were meant to show the wealth one would enjoy in the afterlife:
A relic hunter has lifted the lid on a macabre collection of 400-year-old jewel-encrusted skeletons unearthed in churches across Europe. Art historian Paul Koudounaris has photographed dozens of skeletons in some of the world's most secretive religious establishments. ...
Thousands of skeletons were dug up from Roman catacombs in the 16th century and installed in towns around Germany, Austria and Switzerland on the orders of the Vatican.
They were sent to Catholic churches and religious houses to replace the relics destroyed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s.
Mistaken for the remains of early Christian martyrs, the relics, known as the Catacomb Saints, became shrines reminding of the spiritual treasures of the afterlife.
They were also symbols of the Catholic Church's newly found strength in previously Protestant areas.
Each one was painstakingly decorated in thousands of pounds worth of gold, silver and gems by devoted followers before being displayed in church niches. ...
They were renamed as saints, although none of them qualified for the title under the strict rules of the Catholic Church which require saints to have been canonised.
But by the 19th century they had become morbid reminders of an embarrassing past and many were stripped of their honours and discarded.
Koudounaris' new book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs [out 8 October 2013], is the first time the skeletons have appeared in print. ...
[Koudounaris comments on his findings:]
"The skeletons would then be dressed and decorated in jewels, gold and silver, mostly by nuns. They had to be handled by those who had taken a sacred vow to the church - these were believed to be martyrs and they couldn't have just anyone handling them. They were made saints in the municipalities. One of the reasons they were so important was not for their spiritual merit, which was pretty dubious, but for their social importance. They were thought to be miraculous and really solidified people's bond with a town. This reaffirmed the prestige of the town itself. ... Tracking down the remaining skeletons involved lots of detective work, and for all the ones that are on display there are a lot that aren't. Some were in churches but others were hidden away in storage containers and lock-ups. I'm positive there are some out there that are yet to be discovered. I'm of the opinion these are the finest works of art in human bone ever made."
The photo immediately above: "Rott-am-Inn, Germany martyr from the Roman Catacombs (Katakombenheilige)
Someone from the church at Rott-am-Inn said to me that, if nothing else, one benefit of having skeletons in the church is that it makes the heavy metal kids think going to church is cool. When you think about it, that’s actually quite an accomplishment in its own right." Image Source: Empire de la Mort.
Above: "Rott-am-Inn, Germany martyr from the Roman Catacombs (Katakombenheilige)
One of two such skeletons at Rott-am-Inn. This one wound up on the cover of the Fortean Times featuring an article I wrote on jeweled skeletal relics, and the other is illustrated in the book–that I have inadvertently given them this publicity is ironic considering that, whoever these skeletons may have been during their lifetimes some 1700 years ago, they were certainly not the martyrs in question. Why am I so steadfastly skeptical about their identities? Without going into too lengthy an exegesis, the fourth century itineraries for pilgrims in Rome list only about 40 tombs of authentic, consecrated martyrs. By the time these skeletons were removed from the catacombs, that number had mysteriously swelled to tens of thousands. The papal secretaries were so overwhelmed with trying to come up with identities for this vastly inflated number of martyrs that apparently out of sheer exasperation they eventually named one simply 'St. Anonymous'–which is probably the most honest identification they came up with." Image Source: Empire de la Mort.
Four photos above: "some photos of Sts. Friedrich (... head and chest and then a detail of his hand) and Clemens at Melk Abbey in Austria. They were both gifts to the monastery, Friedrich being bequeathed by none other than the Empress Maria Theresa. They are both supposedly Early Christian martyrs from Rome–well, good luck finding an Ancient Roman named Friedrich, it’s not even close to being a Latin name, but the skeleton was gift, so I guess they couldn’t complain." Image Source: Empire de la Mort.
Two photos above: "The remains of a purported Early Christian martyr by the name of Leontius are probably the most potent healing relics in the history of the Catholic Church. Brought from the Roman Catacombs to the Benedictine monastery of Muri, Switzerland, in the seventeenth century, Leontius quickly began healing anyone and everyone of just about any imaginable ailment. The miraculous healings attributed to him were so numerous that he quickly filled his initial miracle book–a ledger kept by churches to keep track of cases of supernatural aid attributable to their relics–and he soon became an object of devotion for pilgrims. His feast day evolved into a huge local holiday, and those who were too sick to come would send along pieces of cloth to be touched to the relic, so that some of its curative power could be brought back to them. The powers of his bones–disarticulated, but all present in his majestic altar–even included the impressive feat of raising dead children. In fact, he could not permanently raise them, but he could raise them long enough to ensure that they were properly baptized before they died again . . . which from a modern perspective seems admittedly kind of pointless, but back in a less secular age it was considered a great boon, because children who died without a proper baptism were technically not eligible to enter Heaven, so in fact he was helping to ensure their future in the grace of God. St. Leontius’ cult was one of the few that lasted even into the modern world, and to this day next to his shrine there is still a book where visitors can list miracles they attribute to him." Image Source: Empire de la Mort.
Four photos above: "skeletons from the Roman Catacombs in Stams, Austria." Image Source: Empire de la Mort.
Four photos above, from Gars am Inn, Germany: "some pictures of St. Felix. He is one the best skeletons around, and you can pretend you were one of the many people who came to him for miraculous healings back in the day." Image Source: Empire de la Mort.
Four photos above, from Waldsassen Basilica, Germany: "here are some photos I took for the upcoming book of the skeletons in Wald[s]assen, Germany, they are a real fab bunch of bones." Image Source: Empire de la Mort.
Two photos above, Bürglen, Switzerland: "St. Maximus is one of two fully armored skeletons still standing in Swiss churches. His provenance is nowadays a bit murky–he definitely came from the Roman catacombs as a presumed early Christian martyr, although the circumstances of his transport to Bürglen and decoration are no longer exactly known. However it occurred, he was in place within the church by the late seventeenth century, and to this day still stands atop the high altar." Image Source: Empire de la Mort.
See all my posts on Horror themes.
See all my posts on Ghosts.
Check out other blogs observing the Countdown to Halloween!