“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
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.
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.
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.