1600s: Jewelled Skeletons

St. Alexander

St. Alexander

 

In Front of the Lens

“Taken from the catacombs of Rome in the 17th century, the relics of twelve martyred saints were then attired in the regalia of the period before being interred in a remote church on the German/Czech border and displayed in ornate cabinets.”

- Immortal, Toby De Silva

 

St. Deodatus

St. Deodatus

Offering the utmost respect or simply bad taste? – Initially the skeletons seem to be adorned garishly, perhaps as a momento mori. However, Paul Koudounaris, the author of Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs believes the intention was to offer them the highest dignity by adorning them with jewels mentioned in the Book of Revelation’s description of the heavenly Jerusalem. These elaborately bejewelled skeletons would act as a reminder to the faithful of the spiritual treasures that awaited them after death.

 

St. Gratian

St. Gratian

Behind the Lens

The skeletons were excavated in 1578 when a labyrinth of catacombs, which were thought to hold the remains of thousands of early Christian martyrs, were discovered beneath the streets of Rome. The bones were subsequently sent to Catholic churches in German-speaking Europe to replace the holy relics that had been destroyed as a consequence of the Protestant Reformation. Once there, the skeletons would be meticulously reassembled and adorned in the elaborate costumes that they wear today.

 

St. Maximinus

St. Maximinus

Although they are worshipped as saints, it is dubious as to whether these skeletons really are those of Christian martyrs or whether they were merely peddled as such during the 17th century when there was a popular relic trade.

 

St. Maximus

St. Maximus

St. Pancratius

St. Pancratius

St. Theodosius II

St. Theodosius II

St. Victorius

St. Victorius

St. Vitalian

St. Vitalian

The Bigger Picture

About The Author

Avatar of Sophia
Assistant Curator

Sophia joined the Retronaut team as a researcher in 2014. After graduating from Liverpool in 2013 with a BA in Ancient History, she moved to London and now works at Bletchley Park as a volunteer archivist. From test shots of Lauren Bacall to space suits for dogs, working for Retronaut means that Sophia can keep exploring the moments where history, culture and photography collide.

8 Responses

  1. T F Smythe QJM

    Evidence ..as if it were needed..of the madness of religion and the nonsense rituals.

    Reply
  2. Metro

    It’s a waste because they’d look better on you? :D If your best friend or spouse were both a hero in death and dearly loved, you might have a great deal of respect for their dead body. In our culture we’d sooner see that bling on a actor or singer. In other cultures, cherished heroes who gave their lives for their beliefs are worthy objects of adornment, and this is coupled with the believe the human body is absolutely sacred. The people themselves adorn what is precious to them. We love our entertainers in jewels – shows you where we worship ;)

    Reply
  3. Avatar of Becky Vowles
    Becky Vowles

    There are relics like this across Europe and South America. You will see these in churches throughout Czech Republic and Italy for example. A couple of excellent books about the tradition have been written by Paul Koudounaris, these are ‘The Empire of Death’ and ‘Heavenly Bodies’ both are absolutely wonderful for anyone with an interest in the culture and history surrounding death and relics. Absolutely fascinating.

    Reply

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