The Macabre, Bejeweled Skeletons of the Catacomb Saints

The Macabre, Bejeweled Skeletons of the Catacomb Saints

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In 1578, the Roman catacombs near Via Salaria were discovered by curious vineyard workers and later fully uncovered by archeologists, revealing a vast unearthly spectacle. Between 500,000 and 750,000 skeletons gaped ghostly up at them, the ancient remains of people believed to have lived in the centuries shortly after the time of Christ - during which thousands were killed, many of whom were considered to be martyrs of the faith. Encrusted with gold and jewels and adorned in fine fabrics, many of the skeletons went on display in churches to convey the treasures that await devout followers.

Catholic churches worldwide were notified and became instantly intrigued with the discovery, determined for their chapels to have a martyr's skeleton (or several) and willing to pay top dollar for the delivery. A renewed surge of interest in Catholicism could be anticipated with the purchase and distribution of the faithful dead, signaling a substantial recovery from an undermining of the religion and destruction of their treasured relics by Protestants in recent decades.

According to Paul Koudounaris, author of Heavenly Bodies, a comprehensive report on the ancient catacomb saints, explained that procuring such a skeleton for one's church in certain areas of the globe, particularly hard-hit German regions, would make a strong statement of faith as well as an expression of admirable wealth. Some well-to-do citizens sought to add them to their own private home collections, while other community venues reached out to the Vatican to order their martyrs, too. Once obtained, they would be displayed prominently and believed to protect the congregation or family/community group as a saint. When full skeletons could not be purchased, a single piece, like a ribcage or skull, would often suffice.

Dr. Paul Koudounaris ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

How did they know which skeletons were martyrs?

Pagans and Jews were also buried alongside the Christians in the catacomb, however, leaving the church with some ascertaining to do. One determining feature appeared to be the engraving of a letter 'M' near the corpse. While skeptics have argued that this 'M' carving could be indicative of other things, such as the popular ancient Roman name "Marcus", church authorities remained convinced it meant 'martyr'. In addition, the church believed martyred skeletons could be identified by the ethereal golden glow they emitted, as well as a lovely perfumed aroma, so established psychics were recruited to roam through the mass grave selecting the real martyrs from the among their common neighbors.

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Overlooking a possibility that the aroma could be due to another ancient Roman custom of leaving containers of perfume on graves, the church also firmly believed the dried sediment extracted from vessels found aside the remains once held the corpse's own blood - not perfume. Upon determining a skeleton belonged to a martyr, the church Vatican then would later decide who it was and officially give them the title.

From the Gallery of 20th Century Martyrs at Westminster Abbey—l. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It was no small doing to have such a martyred saint situated in your church at the time. Fittingly, historic church baptismal records would often show numerous babies named after their martyr for many years following the arrival of the ghoulish decor, an honor suitable for the saint actively watching over them, protecting them from harm or other beneficial acts. Some churches even kept logs in "miracle books" which chronicled the positive events or strokes of good fortune believed to have been brought on by their regional patron saint.

Enough sparkle and shine to reflect the splendor of a martyr’s afterlife

The process of beautifying each skeleton was usually entrusted to convents, or occasionally monasteries. Up to three years' worth of work ensued, including the frequent initial wrapping of the corpse with a specially-woven gauze fabric made by the nuns. This fabric was fine and sheer, yet prevented dust accumulation and helped hold the bones together throughout the decorating process. Some martyrs' skulls were given wax faces, sometimes even shaped into smiles or other facial expressions. After the wrapping and/or waxing came the jewels, gems, gold and lavish garments, as well as the careful manipulation of the skeleton into lifelike positions. Different nuns or groups of nuns/monks began to have their own recognizably different styles of martyr-decorating, although usually they performed their skills anonymously.

Skeleton covered in Jewels. (

Discredited and destroyed

As the 18th century neared its close, many political leaders took up a more modern perspective and viewed anything considered 'superstitious' in a negative light. Those like Austrian Emperor Joseph II were of a mind to gather and destroy such relics in hopes of reducing the appearance of "vulgarity" or "barbarity" in their constituent communities.

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Community members, however, viewed this change very differently and were often distraught at the removal of the saints they had admired for several generations. Nonetheless, they were dismantled for their jewels and removed, placed into storage or destroyed regardless of the sorrowful congregations.

Austrian Emperor Joseph II by Anton von Maron .

Some remained intact

Some of the beloved saints' skeletons survived the destructive century's end, though, and can be seen to this day, with the largest display of ten full skeletons standing in Waldsassen Basilica of Waldsassen, Bavaria.

A glass case protects the corpse of the "Martyr Candidus" at the Irsee Abbey, Bavaria.

Others are scattered and on exhibit in places like St. Peter's Church of Munich and other random garages and church basements waiting to be found and restored.

A reliquary in St. Peter's Church, Munich. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Artistry and unequivocal identification

According to Koudounaris, the outstanding and painstaking craftsmanship performed by the nuns/monks, as well as the process associated with the artistry of the catacomb saints (i.e. there was no training involved), makes it worthy of its own distinct art subcategory. From the perspective of an art historian, Koudounaris believes that "the question of who the catacomb saints were in life becomes secondary to the achievement of creating them.

A relic from the Holy Catacombs of Pancratius. Image taken at an exhibition at the Historical Museum St. Gallen in Wil, Switzerland. ( CC BY 2.5 )

They’re the finest pieces of art ever created in human bone.” Still, one does wonder who they may have actually been in life centuries ago, and how they would have felt about their amazing rise and fall after death in their beautifully-bejeweled skeleton form.

These Eerily Beautiful Skeletons Are Dripping in Gold and Jewels

The Catacombs under the streets of Rome have famously served as a morbid reminder of early Christianity and those who died for their faith. Filled with the skeletons of early martyrs, tours of these macabre tunnels recall chilling events. But, did you know that some of these skeletons were removed starting in the 16th and 17th centuries? Even more fascinating is that these anonymous skeletons then received the most elaborate ornamentations usually reserved only for knights and kings!

After excavation revealed the skeletons in 1578, many of the remains were ordered by the pope to be displayed in Catholic churches as a response to the austerity of the Protestant Reformation and the destruction of holy icons and relics that went with it. The skeletons were sent to churches in Germany and Switzerland to be display pieces that could replace some of the lost relics of the previous century.

The skeletons were treated as saints, with embellishments about their pasts fabricated as none of the bodies in the catacombs were ever labeled. Some have speculated that the skeletons of “saints” with names shared by wealthy families (who could afford to pay for the transportation, blessing, and ornamentation of a skeleton) were “found” more often!

Treated as religious relics, these artifacts were then embellished with more than just fiction: they were decorated with gold threads, crowns, armor, jewelry, and other precious finery in stunning displays of the church’s wealth and power. Beyond instilling awe in the beholder, these relics were supposed to show the treasures that awaited true Christians in heaven.

The work was often done by nuns or monks, with a rare secular artisan brought in to make armor or other more complicated metalworks from time to time.

The skeletons, now often known as the catacomb saints, were inset with jewels or given wings, their eye sockets often filled with gemstones in elaborate settings. Adding to the ethereal quality is the netting or lace which often covers the skulls and serves to stabilize the gems and gold.

Masks or netting often also effectively hid the decay of the “incorruptible bodies” of saints and martyrs, believed to be resistant to decomposition because of their holiness.

Back then it was not uncommon for the grave of a martyr to become a holy site or for their bodies to be dissected and fragments sent to various churches and abbeys across Europe. Once within the possession of a church a finger bone or a scrap of hair might become the centerpiece of the alter or a grand display. But, bedecking an entire skeleton with precious stones went above and beyond previous reliquary practices.

Once the furor of the Reformation died down and the questionable history of the skeletons came to light, many churches hid or destroyed their bejeweled skeletons. For centuries many of these incredible works of art were not on display or indeed even talked about. Today the remaining “catacomb saints” serve as beautiful and haunting history lessons, as well as incredibly unique works of art.

What’s Under the Bejeweled Clothes of a Catacomb Saint?

Dressed up in Roman-style regalia and a flower crown, lounging next to a vial of his own blood, Saint Aurelius is the prettiest skeleton I’ve ever seen. (And I’ve seen a few, because you’re never far from a body part in a Portuguese church.)

We meet just off the cloisters of the Cathedral of Porto, in a storage room so dark it takes the harsh glow of a smartphone screen to light the way. These aren’t the Saint’s usual chambers, the sexton explains as we squeeze in along the gilded glass tomb, but he’s been recently moved to accommodate renovation work elsewhere in the cathedral. Soon, Saint Aurelius will be back in his beautifully tiled chapel.

For now, however, he’s a hand’s breadth from me, all decked out in golden chainmail and floral brocade and looking as relaxed as only thousand-year-old skeletons in 18th century finery can be. Sitting on my haunches between him and his carbon copy, Saint Pacificus, I’m intrigued by their longevity — which is the same as saying I’m intrigued by all the people whose conservation efforts have made it possible for us to meet. It takes a village, sometimes literally, to bring a skeleton saint like Aurelius unharmed into the 21st century.

Though he is less ostentatious than his central European cousins, the lavishly bejeweled ancient skeletons rescued from oblivion in 2013 by art historian Paul Koudounaris’ book Heavenly Bodies, Aurelius shares their essential origin story: he, too, was dug up by the Vatican from the Roman catacombs, at some point after the 16th century Protestant Reformation, and brought to a faraway altar to serve as a Catholic saint.

This phenomenon served a particular purpose in central Europe, where Protestant raids had systematically stripped Catholic altars of their iconography and relics. In response, the Vatican launched a desperate search for new saints, digging far into the catacombs under the streets of Rome, where it was believed that many Early Christian martyrs had been buried in the first to fourth centuries. The Vatican’s diggers began to unearth a seemingly endless cache of potential new saints to deploy in retaliation to the Protestant threat eventually, thousands of skeletons were exhumed, dusted off and dressed up, then shipped off to exude Catholic glamour in churches all over Europe.

Inscriptions found inside the sole of the Saint’s sandals suggest he may have been assembled in Italy. Image © Joana Palmeirão, in Imagem-relicário de Santo Aurélio mártir pertencente à Sé Catedral do Porto (Master’s Thesis, 2015)

And so it was that Saint Aurelius, accompanied by his near-twin Saint Pacificus, arrived in blissfully perma-Catholic Portugal in the mid-1700s. By 1789, both saints were lounging peacefully on either side of the altar of the Porto cathedral. A century later, however, they were gone. As the Church snapped out of that Reformation-induced state of calamity, it came to view catacomb saints as bejeweled impostors with little believable claim to sainthood, bootleg saints dug up in an embarrassing fit of institutionalized grave-robbing. Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, this mindset evolved into the active destruction of countless catacomb saints, whose jewel-encrusted brocades now seemed decadent and out of place. The lucky ones, like Aurelius and Pacificus, were simply ushered into storage and conveniently forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind.

Fortunately for the pair, history rolled gently forwards, and by 2012 the Porto Cathedral decided to wheel them back out — but not before giving them a makeover at the Center for Art Conservation and Restoration of the Catholic University of Portugal. Aurelius, in particular, fell under the protection of grad student Joana Palmeirão, now a full-fledged researcher of catacomb saints.

“Some people thought he was a mummy, they actually believed he had organs and skin,” Palmeirão tells me, referring back to the beginning of her time with Aurelius. The period he’d spent in storage had severely eroded the collective memory of him, to the point where church officials were no longer sure of what he was. Some, familiar with the incorrupt (i.e. non-decomposed, usually mummified) saints of northern Portugal, took Aurelius for one others, Palmeirão and her team included, took him for a sculpture.

“It was my supervisor, a trained archaeologist, who first noticed the bones,” she continues. The discovery was nothing short of bizarre, as it brought a team of art restorers to the realization that they’d be working on a dead man rather than a simulacrum of one, but Palmeirão took it in stride. The fact that Aurelius’ identity as a skeleton saint had eluded detection for so long, she tells me, was simply proof of a generalized lack of knowledge regarding these bygone manifestations of Catholic devotion.

Covered in painted canvas, the Saint’s face had begun to develop wrinkles prior to the restoration. Image © Joana Palmeirão, in Imagem-relicário de Santo Aurélio mártir pertencente à Sé Catedral do Porto (Master’s Thesis, 2015)

(It also didn’t help that Aurelius was, stylistically speaking, a very modest saint. Unlike his central European cousins, whose costumes made a point to show a glimpse of bone here and there, Aurelius was fully dressed. Even his skull was covered by a piece of painted canvas, an unconventional solution Palmeirão suspects may have been implemented in the 19th century, as a possible attempt to hide Aurelius’s catacumbal origins.)

One of Palmeirão’s first tasks was to make sure that, now that they’d been detected, Aurelius’ bones were all present and accounted for. Together with a medical examiner and a forensic anthropologist, she subjected the saint to the impropriety of an x-ray machine and discovered that this was not quite the case: his pelvis was upside down and all his ribs were missing, as were his sternum, left scapula, every single finger, both ankles, and both heels. He was human-like, but not formally so, assembled by nuns rather than anatomists, for faithful pilgrims rather than medical students.

Hints of the life he’d led before ending up in the Roman catacombs were written on his bones: his right calf bone showed evidence of a half-mended fracture, while his neck vertebrae showed signs of wear often associated with old age. He wasn’t a young man, back when he died in the first to fourth centuries, but maybe he wasn’t even a man at all: the curious positioning of his pelvis prevented the forensic anthropologist from making any guesses towards his sex.

The Saint’s fingers are made to mimic the appearance of bone. Image © Joana Palmeirão, in Imagem-relicário de Santo Aurélio mártir pertencente à Sé Catedral do Porto (Master’s Thesis, 2015)

Of course, it doesn’t really matter who Saint Aurelius was pre-Reformation. It matters that he is among us now, thanks to the ever-growing series of unlikely events that brought him all the way from Rome to Porto, all the way from the hands of whoever buried him in the first century (or the fourth) to those of Joana Palmeirão’s in the 21st. Other catacomb saints haven’t been as lucky, or as pampered, but Early Christians were nothing if not a resilient bunch–and Palmeirão, for her part, believes their time has yet to come.

“There are dozens of saints in Portugal whose bodies were brought from the Roman catacombs,” she tells me, with the conviction of someone who intends to make contact with a considerable number of them. When I probe her further (surely we’d have noticed by now if we had that many holy skeletons!), she reminds me of how Aurelius and Pacificus flew so gently under the radar, camouflaged as they were by intricate layers of canvas and gold thread. The fact is I’ve been to church, to many churches, and I see her point: in a country so densely populated by all manner of lifesize sculptures of saints, it doesn’t sound all that implausible that some of them could be harboring bones on the inside. “Some catacomb saints are bound to be even better disguised than Saint Aurelius,” Palmeirão concludes, upping the ante, “wearing more complete costumes, or wax masks and limbs over the bones, which is likely to complicate their detection.”

Joana Palmeirão will keep her eyes peeled for catacomb saints wherever she goes now, and so will I. Here’s to hoping, as Paul Koudounaris did, that they will come out of hiding.

Saint Aurelius has no hair, but his skull is covered by gauze and an elaborate flower crown. Image © Joana Palmeirão, in Imagem-relicário de Santo Aurélio mártir pertencente à Sé Catedral do Porto (Master’s Thesis, 2015)

After a painstaking restoration work, Saint Aurelius was put back on display, looking prettier than ever. Image © Joana Palmeirão, in Imagem-relicário de Santo Aurélio mártir pertencente à Sé Catedral do Porto (Master’s Thesis, 2015)

Martyr Skeletons Dressed In Jewels

When we went to Rome several years ago, we visited the Capuchin Crypt located on the Via Venato. Every bit of the six-room little space is adorned with the dismembered skeletal remains of c. 3,700 monks who lived, died, were allowed to decay to bones after which the bones were “artistically” arranged all over the walls of the small chapel. The monks had moved to that chapel in 1631 carting with them 300 loads of old bones from their previous friars. Along with their previous brothers’ bones, the friars who carted the bones and began the “artful” arrangements would in time became parts of the, what some would call, ingenious, macabre motif.

Do you, the reader, consider this image of a skeleton decorated with jewelry macabre or beautiful or ingenious?

Salute St. Felix from a church in Gars, Germany

Apparently many Catholic believers during the period of the Reformation (1517-1628) felt they were beautiful, worthy of veneration or even heavenly intercession for believers. The Catholic Church was on the offensive since the Catholic priest Luther tacked up his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. The Theses condemned the Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences for sin and other non-Biblical practices. There were many protests by Protest-ants against the Church’s corruptions all over Europe. The plethora of catacomb bones of real or supposed martyrs in the 1600’s was a gift to the Catholic Church because the perfectly articulated corpses held many Catholics enthralled. There were pilgrimages to Catholic churches to see these fantastically arrayed martyrs.

St Maximus, 3rd century soldier-martyr

The bones themselves came from the re-discovery of the Roman catacombs in c. 1578 when local workers at a vineyard on the Via Salaria in Rome found a hollow, followed it and re-found a catacomb. For the next many decades those underground catacombs were found, were plundered by grave robbers and the bones, skeletons, clavicles et al were sold as relics of martyrs to various Catholic churches. The tireless, empathetic nuns connected to those churches were very talented women and are the ones who made the clothes for and placed the precious and cut stones for decoration upon the catacomb bare bones (called in German katakombenheiligen). Who knows whose ancient bones were so festooned. The bones came packaged from Rome with the name of the martyred saint on the package.

Nuns made the clothes for and placed the precious and cut stones upon the catacomb bare bones

There are actually martyrs with names like St. Incognitus, St. Anonymous, St. Innominabilus (Latin “unnamed”). Wonder how many pilgrims/lay parish priests knew enough Latin to know how ironic these names were when applied to a bag of plundered bones. Is this really the hand of a St. Valentin? Are these really the ancient bones of a woman named St. Luciana (below)?

There is a man in 670 AD who was called St. Deodatus, the hermit. He was bishop of the church in Nevers, France. He died a natural death almost 400 years after the persecutions and martyrs in the Early Church. But he was regally “articulated” (bones put back together) anyway. Is that really the bones of the hermit (below)?St. Theodosius (died c. 529) almost rises to greet us at the church in Waldessau, Germany (below). Even though the real Theodosius founded a church and did not die a martyr’s death, his name is affixed to this supposed earlier martyr Theodosius. Maybe there was an unknown man named Theodosius, meaning “giving to God,” who was martyred for Christ in, say, the early 300’s under the Diocletian persecution? But the known St. Theodosius in the 500’s is one of 10,000 saints venerated by the Catholic Church.

By the 1800’s the Catholic Church had lost the battle to keep the Protestants in the fold and the need for these type of saints became obsolete and a little embarrassing. So the bedecked, like the catacombs, became lost to history until one day in 2008 in a little village in Germany near the Czech border, an art historian, author and photographer named Paul Koudounaris was approached by a man who asked: “Are you interested in seeing a dilapidated old church in the forest with a skeleton standing there covered in jewels and holding a cup of blood in his left hand like he’s offering you a toast?” Koudounaris has always been interested in and has published books on art history and macabre art. “Yes, of course,” he replied. And he found an overgrown-with-forest, abandoned little church with a boarded-up bejeweled skeleton. The first of many he then sought out and found in Europe over the next years. [CLICK HERE for Koudounaris’ book, Heavenly Bodies.]—Sandra Sweeny Silver

Fading Into The Past

The Enlightenment spelled the end for many of the holy skeletons after more than 100 years of enjoying the status of sacred relics. Ideas began to spread throughout Europe that changed the way the holy objects were viewed the jeweled saints, and other relics like them, were seen as items of superstition.

Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II declared in the late 18th century that all items whose origins were not fully known were to be discarded. Since this applied to the skeletons (whose identities in life could never be proven), many were stashed in back rooms, locked in closets, or even raided for their precious gems. The handiwork of the monks and nuns was destroyed. Many small towns were traumatized by the removal of their saints, who they had treasured for generations.

However, not all of the skeletons were taken away from their posts, dismembered, or hidden. There are several churches throughout Europe whose skeletons survived the purge. Today, the largest collection resides in Waldsassen Basilica in Bavaria, with 10 bejeweled skeletons in total. The glittering bones are displayed with pride, as valuable pieces of Catholic history and faith.

Next, check out these photos the Paris catacombs, the world's biggest crypt. Then, read how the bodies of dead climbers serve as macabre guideposts on Mount Everest.

The Most Beautiful Dead: Photographs of Europe’s Jeweled Skeletons

The afterlife is just more elegant for some of us. In a state of repose in churches around Germany, Switzerland, and Austria are these jeweled skeletons ornately decked out for their eternal rest. Yet despite their fascinating garb, they have been almost forgotten.

A new book coming out this October by LA-based photographer and author Paul Koudounaris — called Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, published by Thames & Hudson — brings these beautiful corpses out of obscurity. Back in 2011, Koudounaris published a book on ossuaries called The Empire of Death, and here he takes a step further into the religious veneration of sacred remains.

The jeweled skeletons were originally found in catacombs beneath Rome in 1578, and distributed as replacements under the belief they were Christian martyrs to churches that had lost their saint relics in the Reformation. However, for most, their identities were not known. The receiving churches then spent years covering the revered skeletal strangers with jewels and golden clothing, even filling their eye sockets and sometimes adorning their teeth with finery. Yet when the Enlightenment came around they became a little embarrassing for the sheer amount of money and excess they represented, and many were hidden away or disappeared. Koudounaris tracked down the dead survivors. 

At Atlas Obscura, we’re not unfamiliar with the beautiful dead, from the painted skulls of the Hallstatt Charnel House to elaborate wax and bones saints like Saint Vincent de Paul in Paris, but the skeletons in Heavenly Bodies take ornamentation to a new level. Here are a few from for proof, with captions from the book that give some insight into how these skeletons came to be so glamorous:

St. Valerius in Weyarn (copyright Paul Koudounaris)

The skull of St. Getreu in Ursberg, Germany, is covered in silk mesh and fine wirework set with gemstones, which may have been done in Mindelheim, Germany. (copyright Paul Koudounaris)

Detail of the hand of St. Valentin in Bad Schussenreid, Germany, one of a number of Katakombenheiligen (Roman catacombs saints) named for the popular Italian saint. (copyright Paul Koudounaris)

St. Felix, pictured here, arrived in Sursee, Switzerland, in 1761, and was decorated to match St. Irenaus, brought over a century before by Johann Rudolf Pfyffer of the papal Swiss Guard. (copyright Paul Koudounaris)

St. Munditia, in the church of St. Peter in Munich, grasps a flask supposedly containing dehydrated blood as evidence of her martyrdom. When faith in the catacomb saints waned, Munditia was boarded up and spent several decades hidden from view (copyright Paul Koudounaris)

In Stams, Austria, St. Vincentus’ ribs are exposed beneath a web of golden leaves’ the hand raised to cover the face is a gesture of modesty. (copyright Paul Koudounaris)

Decorated by the skilled lay brother Adalbart Eder, St. Valentinus in Waldsassen wears a biretta and an elaborate, elegantly jeweled version of a deacon’s cassock to emphasize his ecclesiastical status. (copyright Paul Koudounaris)

St. Friedrich at the Benedictine abbey in Melk, Austria, is presented in a typical reclining pose and holds a laurel branch as a sign of victory. (copyright Paul Koudounaris)

The arrival of St. Albertus’ remains from the Roman Catacombs in 1723 was a source of great excitement for the parishioners of the church of St. George in Burgrain, Germany, offering both a tangible connection to the early Christian martyrs and a glimpse of the heavenly treasures that awaited the faithful. (copyright Paul Koudounaris)

St. Luciana arrived at the convent in Heiligkreuztal, Germany, in the mid- 18th century and was prepared for display by the nuns in Ennetach. (copyright Paul Koudounaris)

The relic of St. Deodatus in Rheinau, Switzerland, is an example of an unusual reconstruction technique in which a wax face was moulded over the upper half of the skull and a fabric wrap used to create a mouth. (copyright Paul Koudounaris)

In addition to its four complete skeletons, the church in Roggenburg, Germany, owns a pair of skull relics. This one was given the generic name of Deodatus as its identity was unknown. (copyright Paul Koudounaris)

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Howse, C. (2013) ‘The ghastly glory of Europe’s jewel-encrusted relics’, The Telegraph, 22 August. Available at: [Accessed 2 January 2017].

Jobson, C. (2013) The Beauty of Death: Catacomb Saints Photographed by Paul Koudounaris. Available at: [Accessed 2 January 2017].

Koudounaris, P. (2013) Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. London: Thames and Hudson.

Reality is my Sourcebook: Bejeweled Skeletons

Americans, like myself, don’t tend to get a lot of historical education. I don’t know about the what others may have experienced, but looking back it seems as though I simply learned about the same things over and over. It wasn’t until a few into my university education that I realized I knew next to nothing about American history after the revolutionary war. I was even less familiar with the history of other countries, and even less familiar than that with the history of countries outside of the west. It is a failing I have been regrettably slow to correct, which is really too bad, because ya know all those people who were alive before our parents?

I mean, they were awful. For most of history, every social group has been dirt under the feet of the social group above it. I firmly believe that the human race has, overall, improved as time has gone forward. But none the less, if you take the time to explore the past, I guarantee you’ll find something amazing. Something like bejeweled skeletons.

I haven’t been able to find much more information than is given in my original source (Defunct). The scant information I’ve been able to discover about the individuals has covered their lives, and stopped short after their death. But, apparently, these are all saints of the catholic church. As best I can determine, it seems that all died sometime before 1100 C.E. Each was taken from Rome (probably the catacombs under Saint Peter’s Basilica, though I’m not positive) sometime in the 1600s. Their remains were dressed in these elaborate, bejeweled imitations of what was then modern fashion. They were then re-interred in the catacombs of a small German chapel.

I’d love to learn more if anyone can find anything on the subject. Though the benefit of not knowing is that I get to imagine the details for myself. Was this odd, elaborate ritual done peacefully, or were the remains stolen? If the former, why? Was the transfer of hallowed corpses a bargaining chip in a diplomatic negotiation, or were the corpses moved because it was felt they did not belong amongst the hallowed corpses? Perhaps they were garbed in such a rich fashion in an attempt to satiate their spirits for the dishonor of being removed from a more respectable grave. And if the latter, if the remains were stolen, why, and how? Was there a battle, or was their acquisition a daring act of subterfuge? Were they each members of some secret society, and were taken so they could be buried according to that society’s rituals, or were they all secretly members of a single family? The possibilities are enticing, and endless.

This is the stuff adventures are made of. For a low level adventurer, finding just one of these skeletons would be worth delving through a 10-level dungeon. Even higher level adventurers would be awed to find a group of these skeletons posed around a table, perhaps reenacting some magnificent deed from their lives.

Pictured above is Saint Maximinus, whom I imagine would not be a fun person to game with. Each of the skeletons below are labelled in turn. Many thanks for the beautiful photography must be given to Toby De Silva. You can see more of his work on his website. (Defunct) He’s got an eye for the macabre, which I like.


Howse, C. (2013) ‘The ghastly glory of Europe’s jewel-encrusted relics’, The Telegraph, 22 August. Available at: [Accessed 2 January 2017].

Jobson, C. (2013) The Beauty of Death: Catacomb Saints Photographed by Paul Koudounaris. Available at: [Accessed 2 January 2017].

Koudounaris, P. (2013) Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. London: Thames and Hudson.

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

Watch the video: Jeweled skeletons: short photo compilation