St. Luciana arrived at the convent in Heiligkreuztal, Germany in the mid-eighteenth century
CNN: What was the purpose of decorating the skeletons in gold and jewelry?
Paul Koudounaris: It provided a new and important form of propaganda: these skeletons, shipped northward and then decorated in this elaborate and opulent way, were a means to say that the greatest glory is reserved for those who remain true to the faith, and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in its name. In effect, the extravagant decoration of these skeletons provided a symbol of the glory that those who remained faithful to the Catholic church could expect in heaven.
St. Pancratius in Wil, Switzerland was dressed as a Roman soldier in 1672. Artisans added the armor suit in the 18th century
CNN: Did artisans always come from the Catholic church?
PK: The people who decorated the skeletons were most commonly nuns. If not nuns, maybe monks or lay brothers affiliated with a local religious organization. Only when something special was needed—for cases in which it was desired to decorate the skeleton with a silver suit of armor, for instance, as was sometimes done—did they contract with secular artisans.
Nuns in particular were a perfect choice for decorating skeletons like this. They were frequently involved in textile work, lace work, and beading, which they practiced on a very high level. These are what we might consider craft arts, but the exact kind of skills that were necessary for decorating a skeleton in this way.
St Konstantius displayed in a reclining position in Rohrshach, Switzerland
CNN: Did the artisans ever leave offerings with the skeletons?
PK: It was definitely an honor to work on such skeletons, since it was a service to God. It is notable that many of the skeletons have rings on their bony fingers—often these rings were given to them by the very people who decorated them, as a way of leaving a lasting offering with the skeleton they had worked on, because it was a privilege to have been part of such a project.
The skull of St. Getreu in Ursberg, Germany is covered in silk mesh and fine wire work set with gemstones
CNN: Was there any significance attached to the specific jewels chosen to adorn the skeletons?
PK: Not really. There was not necessarily a meaning to the use of say, an amethyst or a pearl rather than something other, but as a whole the elaborate and opulent décor symbolized the idea of heavenly glory. It symbolized the glory which God saves for those who serve him. So the significance of the décor was to remind those within the local congregation of the glory that would await them in heaven if they remained true to the church, and made whatever sacrifices they could in its name.
This St. Benedictus was received by the church of St Michael in Munich
CNN: Many of the catacomb saints have jewels as eyes and gold decorations as smiles. Was there a motivation to make them more human looking?
PK: The decoration of these skeletons was not like a typical art movement, it was not like a modern movement like cubism or impressionism, where one artist is consciously aware of what others are doing stylistically and you can trace an evolution. There was no uniform style to the decoration of the skeletons, and there were marked regional variants.
One of those involved an attempt in some areas to humanize them by molding wax over the skull to give them fake faces, then glass eyes, wigs, and so on. The idea was that by making them "more human" looking, people would be able to achieve a more intimate bond with them. In other words, to make them seem less creepy.
St. Felix arrived in Sursee, Switzerland in 1761
CNN: What happened to the relics after people questioned their authenticity?
PK: Many were simply destroyed. In the nineteenth century, it was typical for people to pull off all the jewels as scrap, and simply throw the bones away or toss them in anonymous graves. So some of those which survived wound up in storage units, others in private collections and museum collections. I even found one hidden in a box within the altar of one of the local churches—the church itself had no idea that this "catacomb saint" was in this box. He had been hidden away in there for probably a century at least.
St. Faustine, originally housed in a Capuchin chapel in Porrentruy, Switzerland
CNN: This saint was never photographed for publication until you photographed her for this book. Where is she housed?
PK: She is in a storage unit in the back of a parking garage, where she was sent decades ago because it was thought she was too macabre for modern eyes. Like I said, I lot of them fell out of history and were cast out. She was one of them.
St. Friedrich at the Benedictine abbey in Melk, Austria, is presented in a reclining pose and holds a laurel branch as a sign of victory
CNN: Are there any examples of saints that were clearly inauthentic, but that survived anyway?
PK: Friedrich should have been destroyed. In the late eighteenth century, the Emperor Joseph II, who at that time ruled Austria, gave instructions that any relics that did not have a firm, acceptable provenance should be removed from their shrines and gotten rid of. He was a man of the Enlightenment, and this decree was to help get rid of silly superstitions and inappropriate veneration.
Friedrich could never have passed muster. Think about it: He is supposedly a martyr from the Roman catacombs, but his name is "Friedrich" —that's not even a Roman name. It's a German name, it's not even Latin. Probably the only reason he was not destroyed is that the skeleton had been a gift to the monastery from Joseph II's mother, Maria Theresa.
St. Munditia, in the church of St Peter in Munich, grasps a flask supposedly containing dehydrated blood as evidence of her martyrdom
CNN: Did people choose to worship specific saints?
PK: Munditia was the patron saint of spinsters. Unmarried old women thus gravitated towards her as their saint and patron. She was boarded up for several decades—hidden away as too macabre for modern eyes. But then they removed the boards so she could be seen because she was such an important part of local history and folklore.
After the boards were removed a vandal broke into the church and smashed her shrine open, ran off with all the red and green jewels covering her body. The church restored her, put replicas in the place of the ones that had been stolen. But that incident is a sad episode, a sad commentary on how many of these skeletons were treated.
St Valentin in Bad Schussenreid, Germany, one of a number of Katakombenheiligen named for the popular Italian saint
CNN: The skeletons might be seen as eerie or ostentatious. Did any groups object to the practice of decorating them?
PK: The Protestants of course despised these garish skeletons and thought them to be absurd. For the Protestants, these skeletons were a kind of worst-case-scenario example of the superstition that was rampant in Catholic Europe. One of the questions I often get asked, however, is if there was ever any evidence of objections on the Catholic side to lavishing obviously large amounts of money on these skeletons. The answer, perhaps surprising from a modern perspective, is no. In fact, quite the opposite. Locals typically welcomed these skeletons unquestioningly and with open arms.
For the relic of St. Deodatus in Rheinau, Switzerland,artisans molded a wax face over the upper half of the skull and used a fabric wrap to create a mouth
CNN: Does the skeletal aesthetic still influence designers and artists today?
PK: There are definitely examples of similar types of things in the modern world, especially in the work of an artist like Damien Hirst, and the look seems to have filtered into popular culture in a kind of Pirates of the Caribbean aesthetic. But these skeletons so fell out of history, pretty much being known about only locally if at all, that it's hard to say if there is any direct line of descent between them and the cognates one might find in the modern world.
St Valentinus in Waldsassen, Czech Republic, wears a biretta and an elaborate, elegantly jeweled version of a deacon's cassock to emphasize his ecclesiastical status
CNN: Which town or church has the best collection of jeweled skeletons today?
PK: Waldsassen still has ten of these skeletons, all on display, all still resplendent. It's the finest display of jeweled skeletons that still exists. It's like the Sistine Chapel of death in there. The incredible display includes one skeleton on each side altar, ten of them, and then two decorated skeletal busts behind the high altar, for a total of twelve, one for each month of the year. When people write to me, which they often do, and say, "If I want to see some of these in person, where should I go?," I always tell them to go to Waldsassen. It's an intact, incredible display of jeweled skeletons.
St. Vincentus rests in Stams, Austria. His ribs are exposed beneath a web of golden leaves
CNN: At any point did you share the awe of the 16th century Catholics who venerated these objects?
PK: Yes, definitely. When I was photographing them I was often possessed of a certain kind of empathy, this feeling of the veneration and love that was once given to them. It was an awesome but also sad feeling to know what these skeletons had once been, the power they were once thought to hold, and the meaning they once held for so many people, but were now denied. It was an often profound experience, measures of awe and sadness, and especially the latter.