Bejewelled Corpses of Christian Martyrs Seen For First Time
A startling new project by art historians Paul Koudounaris has unearthed a series of striking new images that challenges understandings of both theology and art history. Koudounaris’ new publication ‘Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs’ saw the art historian track down the little known religious practice of ‘catacomb saints’ which blurs decoration and desecration.
He found and documented more than seventy bodies of deceased martyrs and saints which had been richly decorated on behalf of the Catholic Church; with gems and gold even being grafted onto bones.
During the Protestant Reformation, many relics were destroyed in churches throughout Europe. The relics, often jewel encrusted lockets or pouches containing the hair, skin or possessions from saints, had been a focal point for prayer for many worshippers. To fill this void following their destruction during the Reformation, the Church commissioned work to treat the bodies of deceased saints and martyrs in precisely the same way.
Continuing this idea of the relic to an extreme, the bodies themselves were decked in precious metals and had gems grafted on to their bones.
According to Koudounaris’s publishers, Thames and Hudson, “the skeletons were displayed in elaborate public shrines as reminders of the spiritual treasures that awaited the faithful after death”.
However, the Church soon came under fire for such practices. Some argued that the process was symbolic of Church corruption and wealth, that such expense and finery was channelled into the deceased and not helping poor parishioners. Finally, when doubts were raised as to whether the bodies in question even actually belonged to the saints that the Church claimed, they “became a source of embarrassment for the Church and most were destroyed or hidden away” and had completely dropped from practice by the turn of the nineteenth century.
Koudounaris’ book contains images of more than seventy such ‘catacomb saints’. He explains his desire to write about the human relics as both “intriguing historical artifacts and masterpieces of artistic craftsmanship”.
The skeletons are a blend of both artefact and art; displaying both tremendous artistry and a social response to death that may jar with the modern reader. The inclusion of aesthetic adornment in post mortem treatment of bodies is of course nothing new and has been seen in a variety of cultures including Mexico’s ‘Day of the Dead’ skulls.
Nonetheless these images have an deeply disturbing quality. At the core, the body appears commodified and mutilated by these apparent adornments. Koudounaris’ work is a study of a fascinating if unpalatable theological and psychological response to death. In particular, what it reveals about how aesthetics have been called upon to negotiate the process of death prompt fresh questions to art historians and art lovers alike.
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