Death has never looked so beautiful.
In 1578 news came of the discovery in Rome of a labyrinth of underground tombs, which were thought to hold the remains of thousands of early Christian martyrs. Skeletons of these supposed saints were subsequently sent to Catholic churches and religious houses in German-speaking Europe to replace holy relics that had been destroyed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. The skeletons, known as "the catacomb saints," were carefully reassembled, richly dressed in fantastic costumes, wigs, crowns, jewels, and armor, and posed in elaborate displays inside churches and shrines as reminders to the faithful of the heavenly treasures that awaited them after death.
Paul Koudounaris gained unprecedented access to religious institutions to reveal these fascinating historical artifacts. Hidden for over a century as Western attitudes toward both the worship of holy relics and death itself changed, some of these ornamented skeletons appear in publication in his book "Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints From the Catacombs" for the first time.
During the Beeldenstorm of the 16th century and continued iconoclasm of the 17th century, Catholic churches throughout Europe were systematically stripped of their religious symbols, iconography and relics. In response, the Vatican ordered that thousands of skeletons be exhumed from the catacombs beneath the city and installed in towns throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Paul Koudounaris revived interest in the catacomb saints with his 2013 book, Heavenly Bodies. In publishing the book, Koudounaris sought to find and photograph each of the extant saints.
So fascinated by the discovery and indeed the story behind 'The Catacomb Saints' art historian (& self-confessed relic hunter) Paul Koudounaris travelled all over Europe trying to find and document the status of each Saint. Amazingly many of the skeletons were yet to be put on display, still stored in containers waiting to be dressed and revealed to the public.
His work serves as a compelling documentation of some of the most elaborate & forgotten relics from a by-gone era.
Below are a few photographs from the stunning book.