If you just happened upon a mass of skeletons hidden away in an underground tunnel, what would you decide they were there for? If you said Christian martyrs, you’re right in line with the thinking of Roman Catholics in 1578.
Heavenly Bodies $29.95
Left: St Valentinus in Waldsassen, Germany wearing a jeweled version of a deacon’s cassock. Right: Hand of St Valentin in Bad Schussenreid, Germany. Many of the catacomb saints were name for the popular Italian saint.
In Heavenly Bodies, a book of photographs and amended research by Paul Koudounaris, these martyrs or “catacomb saints” are photographed in some of oldest religious establishments in Europe. Many are seeing light through his lens after decades of being hidden away by embarrassed churches when modernity swept in and cast serious doubt on the authenticity of these lavishly adorned skeletons.
St Munditia at the church of St Peter in Munich
Imagine the draw a supposed martyr who looked this glorious would have had for those in a church service at a time when most people were illiterate and any sort of schooling was reserved for the wealthiest citizens or members of the priesthood. Worshipped and adorned with crowns and armor made from pearls, rubies, emeralds, gold; all of the most precious materials the Catholic church had to offer, the beautified remains were sent to churches and put on public display throughout German-speaking Europe, praised as miracle workers and protectors of believers.
Painted skulls of nuns who were members of the convent in Eschenbach, Germany and devoted to their catacomb saint Symphorosa
St Luciana at a convent in Heiligkreuztal, Germany
Though these saints have been proven fictitious creations of the Catholic church, ordered to replace relics that were lost in the Protestant Reformation, obviously the artisanal excellence displayed should not be de-valued. Nuns and monks painstakingly prepared and bejeweled these skeletons and the time between transport and final display was often several years. Gold lattice, pearls and sapphires were made to replace eyes and gold armor dripping with precious stones and pearls covers each from head to toe. They may not have died for their religious beliefs, but a visual representation of death this alluring is easy to worship.
St Benedictus in the church of St Michael in Munich