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Beauty from the crypt: Mystery of Europe's jeweled skeletons

<i>St. Valerius at rest in in Weyarn, Germany</i><!-- -->
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</br>When archaeologists unlocked the catacombs of Rome in 1578, they unleashed a wave of religious fervor. Catholic officials disinterred skeletal remains, which they assumed to be early Christian martyrs, and had artisans reassemble them. Encrusted with gold and jewels, the skeletons then went on display in lavish shrines across Europe to convey the glory that awaited the Church's devout followers in the afterlife. But by the early 19th century their saintly authenticity came into question and, in a dramatic reversal of fortune, many of the relics were hidden from view or destroyed.<!-- -->
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</br>Photographer and author Paul Koudounaris gained unprecedented access to these so-called "catacomb saints" for his new book <i><a href='http://www.thamesandhudson.com/Heavenly_Bodies/9780500251959' target='_blank'>Heavenly Bodies</a></i><i>, </i>published by Thames and Hudson. Many had never been photographed for publication before. Revered as spiritual objects and then reviled as a source of embarrassment for the Church, their uneven history is marked by one constant: a mysterious, if unsettling, beauty. "I wanted to pursue this project to provide a new context for them," Koudounaris says, "and to look at them not as failed devotional items, but instead as fine objects of art.<!-- -->
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Interview by William Lee Adams

St. Valerius at rest in in Weyarn, Germany

When archaeologists unlocked the catacombs of Rome in 1578, they unleashed a wave of religious fervor. Catholic officials disinterred skeletal remains, which they assumed to be early Christian martyrs, and had artisans reassemble them. Encrusted with gold and jewels, the skeletons then went on display in lavish shrines across Europe to convey the glory that awaited the Church's devout followers in the afterlife. But by the early 19th century their saintly authenticity came into question and, in a dramatic reversal of fortune, many of the relics were hidden from view or destroyed.

Photographer and author Paul Koudounaris gained unprecedented access to these so-called "catacomb saints" for his new book Heavenly Bodies, published by Thames and Hudson. Many had never been photographed for publication before. Revered as spiritual objects and then reviled as a source of embarrassment for the Church, their uneven history is marked by one constant: a mysterious, if unsettling, beauty. "I wanted to pursue this project to provide a new context for them," Koudounaris says, "and to look at them not as failed devotional items, but instead as fine objects of art.

Interview by William Lee Adams