According to legend, these ancient skeletons came from Roman catacombs and were the remains of Catholic martyrs. The remains are particularly horrifying to look at because they are covered in priceless old riches.
In Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, Paul Koudounaris provides an amazing visual history of the veneration of bejeweled and decorated skeletons in European churches and monasteries. “Death has never been so gorgeous”.
On orders from the Vatican, thousands of skeletons were removed from Roman catacombs and placed in towns around Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in the 16th century.
The labyrinth of underground tombs in Rome was discovered in 1578, and it was believed that thousands of early Christian martyrs’ remains were interred there.
Following the Protestant Reformation, skeletons of these purported saints were brought to Catholic churches and other places of worship in German-speaking Europe to replace the holy relics that had been lost.
The “catacomb saints” were skeletons that were meticulously put back together, lavishly dressed in stunning and fantastical costumes, wigs, crowns, jewels, and armor, and posed in elaborate displays inside churches and shrines to serve as reminders to the faithful of the heavenly rewards that awaited them after death.Long dead: The hand of St Valentin in Bad Schussenreid, Germany (left) and St Munditia, in the church of St Peter in Munich (right).
Paul Koudounaris gained unprecedented access to religious institutions to reveal these fascinating historical artifacts. He believes that it’s impossible to put a modern-day value on the skeletons.
Hidden for over a century as Western attitudes toward both the worship of holy relics and deαth itself changed, some of these ornamented skeletons appear in publication here for the first time.
After they were found in the Roman catacombs the Vatican authorities would sign certificates identifying them as martyrs then they put the bones in boxes and sent them northwards. The skeletons would then be dressed and decorated in jewels, gold and silver, mostly by nuns.St Benedictus: 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 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 symbols of the faith triamphant and 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.