The new book Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris provide a rare look at the Europe’s jeweled skeletons of Christian saints.
In the 16th century the Protestant Reformation lead to the destruction of many religious images. Iconoclasm continued into the 17th century as Europe’s Catholic churches were stripped of their imagery and relics. When a labyrinth of underground tombs was found in Rome, the Vatican ordered that thousands of skeletons be exhumed from the catacombs and sent to towns throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Considering their burial, the remains most likely did not belong to anyone of religious significance. However, that did not stop the Church from giving them the names of Catholic saints and lavishly dressing them in gold and precious stones to remind the faithful of what awaited them in the afterlife.
Skeptics soon began to question the church’s outlandish claims, including the validity of the remains. In the 19th century an Italian archeologist determined the majority of the burials in the catacombs dated to after Christianity was legalized by Emperor Constantine in the year 313. This eliminated the possibility that the remains were of early Christians persecuted for their beliefs. The Church continued to reaffirm its claims to avoid scandal, but many of the “saints” were eventually sold off or boarded up and hidden from view.
The Vatican continued to unearth these remains and send them out to bolster faith for two centuries. Paul Koudounaris, author of Empire of Death, gained unprecedented access to these bizarre relics for his new book, revealing some for the first time ever in publication.
Heavenly Bodies is a fascinating glimpse into the history of the Catacomb Saints, including their exhumation and construction. Order it now right here.