Gloriously decorated with gold and gems, dressed in elaborate finery, in life these bones once supported purported saints and martyrs, and now in death show the historic veneration, an appreciation of miracles once worked, having reminded the faithful living of the spiritual treasures that awaited them upon death.
These bones are more than beautiful expressions of faith; their stories trace a history of religious revolution, reformation, and restoration. They illuminate history, reveal human foibles and urges, and bemoan the encroachment of science and modernity. And on a more mundane level, these heavenly bodies are macabre mannequins who wear the finest couture of their times, dressed on earth as the devout would be in Heaven.
When the Protestant Reformation exploded across Europe, the Reformers destroyed many relics of Catholic saints, which had drawn pilgrims across Europe as attractions for the faithful. Almost every cathedral, and even smaller churches, had the bones of a saint, maybe just a shin, or a finger bone, but still a holy item, possessing God-given power for the faithful. But the dark hordes of Reformers smashed and burned them, and Catholics, often forced to practice in secret, were bereft. But then in 1578, a miracle occurred as the Church sought to regain and restore her flock: A labyrinth of underground burials assumed to be the remains of thousands of early Christian martyrs was discovered in Rome. The Church rejoiced, and sent sets of bones off to their churches as replacements for the destroyed relics, each with a proper name–like St Benedictus, St. Felix, St. Munditia–and a history of their miracles and marvels. These avatars proved the Church’s power on earth, the incorruptibility of the Catholic faith. Dr. Koudounaris writes:
Reassembled by skilled artisans, encrusted with gold and jewels, richly dressed in fantastic, colorful costumes, the skeletons were displayed in elaborate public shrines as reminders of the spiritual treasures that awaited the faithful after death. For nearly three centuries these ornate “Heavenly Bodies” were venerated as miracle-workers and protectors until doubts about their authenticity surfaced in the modern era. They then became a source of embarrassment for the Church and sadly, most were destroyed or hidden away.
Granted unprecedented access to shrines and reliquaries of the most secretive religious sects throughout Europe, Dr. Paul Koudounaris brings these bejeweled saints into the public eye with goriously detailed photographs that celebrate their makers’ reverence and art.
Dr. Koudounaris, author of the acclaimed Empire of Death, and a contributor to CARTWHEEL, brings these catacomb saints out of the darkness in this astonishing exhibition and accompanying book, Heavenly Bodies, itself featuring stunning images of more than seventy spectacular jeweled skeletons, many who have never been seen by the public. On November 1, he will be signing copies of Heavenly Bodies at La Luz de Jesus, from 8pm to 11pm. A print will be given away with each book purchased. The exhibition runs through December 1, 2013.
Heavenly Bodies Book Signing, Dr. Paul Koudounaris
Friday, November 1st, 8pm to 11pm
La Luz de Jesus
4633 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Top Image: St. Felix