Wednesday, October 2, 2013

All Hallows' Eve Countdown: Fake Saints from the Catacombs


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."
You can see Dr. Koudounaris's Website here; he has explored ossuaries, catacombs and charnel houses across Europe and published another book on the subject, The Empire of Death (2011). See my earlier post on creepy ossuary decor here. See more images below the jump. All images are taken from a HuffPo report, unless otherwise watermarked from Dr. Koudounaris's site; all images are © Paul Koudounaris and reproduced under Fair Use for non-commercial discussion and review.
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