bones One of countless bejeweled and otherwise decorated skeletons photographed by Dr. Paul Koudounaris for his book Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. He will give a lecture about his macabre discoveries next week at the Ojai Library.

The lovely bones

Paul Koudounaris and the catacomb saints

By David Cotner 10/17/2013


It’s somewhat staggering to consider where your bones might be in 1,500 years.

Art history professor Paul Koudounaris has, for the better part of the past decade, circled the globe in his quest to photograph the centuries-old phenomenon of skeletons interred in crypts, ossuaries and charnel houses.  They’re placed there for various reasons: devotion, disease, deification.  Modern-day mausoleums are a pale echo of this tradition.  Koudounaris cuts a singular figure: imagine Indiana Jones in fur instead of a fedora, snapping pictures instead of a whip.  That’s Paul Koudounaris. He will be speaking in Ojai next week.

His first book, Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses (Thames & Hudson), spans 224 pages of notes on a netherworld in which an architecture of bone holds sway, shot through with images rarely or never before seen by the public.  The most notorious example of his field of study is the ossuaries brimming with countless bones beneath the streets of Paris.

The titular corpses of his latest book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs (also Thames & Hudson) were discovered in 1578 in a hidden labyrinth of catacombs beneath Rome.

At the Vatican, Pope Gregory XIII (pope, 1575-1585) and his advisers considered how best to use this new currency of supposed early Christian martyrs.  Vatican officials found that they could increase the reach of the Catholic Church in Europe by using these putative martyrs in new churches under construction throughout a theological frontier that had been ravaged of relics by Protestant wars of devotion.  Clothing the corpses in finery and jewels, they became saints with new names and new powers, installed in the churches as physical manifestations of the divine.

Seeing is believing, after all.

For 300 years, the ruse held, until modern skepticism led the Church to remove the suddenly sullied saints and hide them away or destroy them.  The Church has had many secrets over the centuries — the catacomb saints were just one more to put into hiding, surrendered to the earth once again just as they had been all those centuries before.

Who cares about the forgotten dead, anyway?

“The first book was about the anonymous dead, that the bone rooms had power because they reminded us of mortality,” Koudounaris told VCReporter. “After we all die, we are one-and-the-same. Death is the great leveler.  But death doesn’t level these people, these catacomb saints.  There was attempt to give these people specificity, a very specific identity.  It’s all a fraud.  They weren’t actually martyrs and they were not actually saints.”

They could have been paupers, or, as he points out, they could have been pagans. Pagans and Jews were buried in the Roman catacombs as well — catacombs that began as pagan burial places.  So how did the agents of the Vatican know which bodies to deify?  “One of the things they would look for,” he explained, “was the letter “M.”  If they found a letter “M” on a funerary plaque or broken piece of crockery, they thought that “M” must be an abbreviation for martyr.”

“M” was also, coincidentally enough, an abbreviation for the most popular name in all of Rome: Marcus. “S” was a popular abbreviation as well. “S” meant sang and sang meant blood, but “S” could also mean Saturn. So maybe we have guys named Marcus who worshipped Saturn.

Essentially, these bodies were sent out to Catholic churches as an extra added attraction for the faithful, a kind of public relations for the Church.  The Protestants said relics were no good. One of the ways the Catholic Church tried to affirm its identity during the Protestant Reformation was by promoting anything the Protestants denied.  It’s a bit like Coke vs. Pepsi.

“The Catholics knew that relics always had an appeal to the laity, and they have a sense of awe around them,” explained Koudounaris. The Catholics knew that this was a way of drawing particularly superstitious people back into the Church by showing them this display of absolute grandeur and saying, “This is the reward that God gives for those who serve him.  That reward, given to this particular individual, is also standing here, as an intercessor on your behalf.  This skeleton standing before you is also a tangible bridge to supernatural power, because as a relic of a saint, if you venerate this thing properly, good things will happen to you.”

Koudounaris is planning a talk in Ojai that isn’t just a reading from the book itself.  The book, he reveals, “Was confined by certain editorial constraints.  There’s some material that is absolutely wonderful for the audience, just in terms of the way people interacted with the skeletons.  It’s a little bit more about the intimate and personal relationships people had with them.”

While it might be slightly distasteful to consider intimate relations with a corpse, the reality is nothing quite so dramatic, Koudounaris says. “There’s a certain folklore surrounding all of them by virtue of the fact that they were thought to be heavenly bodies.”

Those bodies were imbued with special powers of a particular pedestrian variety: the ghost of St. Maximus became a cat, protecting people in the city.  As for sterilizing animals, St. Albertus was your man.  Not even foul odor — something of a serious business in the Middle Ages — was beneath the power of the saints.  “These saints were part of the community,” Koudounaris says, adding “They were dead members of a community, but they were part of a community and they had a function to fulfill.  There were two skeletons in the same church, St. Faustus and St. Candida, and people would venerate those relics under the assumption that the smell would be removed.  That’s the personal relationship these saints had to the community in which they were placed and, for centuries, thrived.”           

Dr. Paul Koudounaris’ lecture “Heavenly Bodies: Spectacular Jeweled Skeletons” on Thursday, Oct. 24, 6:30 p.m. at the Ojai Public Library, 111 E. Ojai Ave., 646-1639.



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