Body modification after death has a long and interesting past, from the carving of skulls to full-body transformations, as will be discussed here. In 1578 local vineyard workers discovered a hollow on the Via Salaria, which led to the infamous catacombs of Rome. Inside these subterranean passages were chambers containing thousands of remains, many of them early Christians who died for their faith, as for the first three centuries after its emergence it was banned. The catacombs are estimated to have contained 500,000-750,000 remains of Christians, pagans and Jews who were persecuted for their faith.
The discovery was believed to be a gift from god, and it was not long before the Catholic Church took over the management of what soon became known as ‘The Catacomb Saints’. This title was given due to these people’s martyrdom; these people died for their faith and were exemplars of Christian loyalty. The discovery also came at a very opportune time; the Protestant Reformation and anti-Christianity had led to the desecration of holy relics across northern Europe. Hence, these ‘saints’ provided the perfect opportunity to replace the destroyed or damaged relics.
In order to replace the relics, however, the Church had to determine which bodies belonged to Christian martyrs. This was done by several questionable methods: a skeleton found with an ‘M’ engraved next to it was taken to be a martyr, despite the fact that this could easily stand for Marcus, a popular name in ancient Rome. Psychics were also used to read the aura of skeletons, and those with a golden glow and sweet smell were deemed holy. The skeletons were then given their identity and titles; those who left no clue as to their identity were given new ones such as Constantius (Constant), Felix (Happy) or Incognitus (Unknown). The validity of these methods was questioned by some within the Vatican, although any who received the relics would not dare question an official Vatican delivery.
The bodies were greatly desired by churches across Europe, particularly in southern Germany, which suffered acutely from Protestant and Catholic strife. Smaller churches used bribery or connections with papal guards for instance, in order to obtain a relic. The skeletons were also acquired by guilds to adopt as their patron and by wealthy families for use in private chapels. They were transported from Rome, often by monks who specialised in this work, to their destinations, where they were then decorated with precious gems, clothing, crowns, wigs and armour for display. Due to the enormous transport costs, the size of relics varied from a complete skeleton to a single bone. Most of the remains, an estimated 2000 skeletons, were sent to Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
Examples of the incredible detail characteristic of the saints
Skilled nuns or monks would decorate the skeletons, which could take up to three years, with each team having their own particular style. Nuns often made the fabric themselves, which protected the bones and provided a foundation for the attachments. Local nobles and nuns themselves often donated these attachments. The lack of anatomical knowledge is apparent in some cases, however, with bones attached in the wrong order. The faces were given such detail in order to make them more lifelike and appealing; although it can be seen as disturbing today (one recent response I received on the relics was ‘ew’).
Saint Deodatus’ face has been fashioned from wax and fabric wrap
The finished skeletons were then unveiled to the public and celebrated; they often became town patrons. Many of the town’s children, particularly firstborns, were often named after the saint. They were seen as guardians, and facilitators of good fortune and miracles; records were kept to mark these events. Saint Felix of Gars am Inn is credited with stopping a fire which threatened the town market place, the key to economic survival.
With the passage of time the saints fell out of favour; in the late 18th century relics without certain provenance were banned by Emperor Joseph II of Austria, and pilgrimages to the saints were banned. The local communities still believed in their siants and often wept as they were taken from their places of honour. Some of the saints survived the 18th century banishing, and are still on display today, such as the ten saints of the Waldassen Basilica in Bavaria.
Many of the skeletons have been lost, although efforts are being made to restore some of those surviving; the saints Felicianus and Primus of Rottenbach in Bavaria were restored in 1977 through fundraising after their removal in 1803.
A saint decorated in a manner reminiscent of Christ
A saint displayed in a typical reclining pose
Koudounaris, an art historian with an interest in death, reignited interest in the Catacomb Saints in 2013 when he published his comprehensive work on the current status of the saints. Whether they are seen as simply macabre examples of the human past, or symbols of faith and devotion, one cannot deny the intrigue and majesty of these astounding works. The true identities of these bodies cannot be regained, yet in death they have gained a lasting fame and reinvention. They stand as a testament to human ingenuity and the interesting ways in which death is perceived through time. Once revered, then banished, but now gaining if not veneration then at least awareness, these saints have shown that their story is not yet complete.
Howse, C. (2013) ‘The ghastly glory of Europe’s jewel-encrusted relics’, The Telegraph, 22 August. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10256894/The-ghastly-glory-of-Europes-jewel-encrusted-relics.html. [Accessed 2 January 2017].
Jobson, C. (2013) The Beauty of Death: Catacomb Saints Photographed by Paul Koudounaris. Available at: http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2013/10/the-beauty-of-death-catacomb-saints-photographed-by-paul-koudounaris/ [Accessed 2 January 2017].
Koudounaris, P. (2013) Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. London: Thames and Hudson.
Nuwer, R. (2013) ‘Meet the Fantastically Bejeweled Skeletons of Catholicism’s Forgotten Martyrs’, Smithsonian Magazine, 1 October. Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/meet-the-fantastically-bejeweled-skeletons-of-catholicisms-forgotten-martyrs-284882/ [Accessed 27 December 2016].
So Bad So Good (2013) Unbelievable Skeletons Unearthed From The Catacombs of Rome. Available at: http://sobadsogood.com/2013/09/08/heavenly-bodies-cult-treasures-and-spectacular-saints-from-the-catacombs-by-paul-koudounaris/ [Accessed 27 December 2016].