In the late 16th century, a collection of skeletons was unearthed from catacombs below the foundations of Rome. Believed to be the remains of early Christian martyrs, these holy relics were collected and redistributed to European churches during the Counter-Reformation, a time of Roman Catholic resurgence following the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500’s.
Lavishly clothed and decorated in jewels by Catholic nuns, the skeletons were elaborately posed in church reliquaries, replacing holy relics lost or destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. These jeweled martyrs were displayed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, until changing sensibilities consigned them to locked storerooms and dusty chambers, forgotten by the modern world until art historian and lecturer Dr. Paul Koudounaris stumbled across them while researching his first book, Empire of Death.
Fascinated by these beautiful specimens, Dr. Koudounaris scoured the churches of Europe to track down the remains known as “The Catacomb Saints,” a quest documented in his recently released book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. With over 100 images of these intriguingly lovely and morbid works of art, Heavenly Bodies has moved up to the top of my 2014 reading list.
Browse some of the fascinating photos from the book in the gallery below, and be sure to visit Dr. Koudounaris’s fabulous website, Empire de la Mort, for more photos, history, and lecture appearances.