Exquisite 16th Century “Catacomb Saints” – Bones & Jewels

On September 5, 2015 by Tim Newman

- Bürglen, Switzerland, detail of the skull St. Maximus inside armored helmet. One of two surviving skeletons of saints taken from the Roman Catacombs as presumed martyrs and decorated in armor in Switz -

Paul Koudounaris is an author and photographer from LA with a sly eye for the macabre and a PhD in Art History from UCLA. He has travelled extensively around Europe unearthing some of the most bizarre and ornate skeletons known to man. He has uncovered a hoard of 400-year-old jewel encrusted bodies across Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

So where did these incredible relics come from? Well, during the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s many churches were ransacked and relics destroyed because they were deemed to be non-Christian. These magnificently adorned bodies were distributed by the Catholic church in the aftermath to restore faith and pride in Catholicism.

Incredibly, Paul Koudounaris found some of these so-called ‘Catacomb Saints’ hidden away in containers and lock-ups, having been away from prying eyes for centuries. Many of the bodies were mistaken to be early martyrs, but the important thing for the locals who received these dramatic bodies at the time was their impressive richness. They were a symbol of the Catholic church’s money and power.

Paul Koudounaris - Catacomb Saints -Jewel Encrusted

But where did they get so many saintly corpses? The truth is that the church had an abundance of 1st century skeletons within the Roman catacombs; many of these bodies were actually pagans and none of them had names or stories attached to them, they were effectively random bodies. This was a trivial matter for the Catholic church, the Pope simply declared them saints, gave them names, got the nuns to jazz them up with gold and jewels and sold them on to distant northern churches.

Paul Koudounaris - Catacomb Saints - Saint Felix

By the late 18th and early 19th century many of these Catacomb Saints were seen as an embarrassing sign of their past. They were perceived as too ghoulish and idolatrous, so they were stripped of their honours and discarded. Koudounaris managed to track down the few that miraculously avoided being stripped of their finery.

Koudounaris’ book Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs is the first time the bodies have been displayed in print.

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.
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 triumphant 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.

Follow Koudounaris on Instagram HERE or Facebook HERE.

Paul Koudounaris - Catacomb Saints - Rich Body Wil, Katakombenheiliger Pankratius / Foto 2010 - Wil, Switzerland, upper body of St. Pancratius. The relic of a presumed martyr from the Roman Catacombs arrived in the city's church of St. Nicholas in the 1670s. The relic was considered miraculous. - Paul Koudounaris - Catacomb Saints - Holy Bodies Paul Koudounaris - Catacomb Saints - Golden Eyes Paul Koudounaris - Catacomb Saints - Cult Treasures Paul Koudounaris - Catacomb Saints - Close Up - Weyarn, Germany, St. Valerius skull detail. The elaborately decorated relic of the presumed martyr from the Roman Catacombs arrived in the town's monastery church in the early 18th century. An entire - - Munich, Germany, detail of head and chest of St. Iocondino. The relic is that of a boy's skeleton, taken from the Roman Catacombs and believed to be a child martyr. It was originally at St. Stephan's - - Waldsassen, Germany, detail of St. Gratian. The Basilika at Waldsassen holds the largest extent collection of presumed skeletons of martyrs from the Roman Catacombs still on display. There are ten ful - - Melk, Austria, St. Friedrich. The relic was given to the large monastery church as a gift of the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa. It was presumed to be a martyr discovered in the Roman Catacombs, but w -






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