Paul Koudounaris, who is also identified by his nickname ‘Indiana Bones’ is an author, photographer and foremost authority on bone-decorated places and ossuarys. Earlier this year, Koudounaris published a book that includes high definition images of that 400-year-old ‘catacomb saints’ of Rome, a bunch of corpses that was carefully decked with charms and finery before being offered as the remains of saints to congregations across Europe.
Through the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, Catholic churches were routinely stripped of these relics, symbols and finery. In order to defy this, The Vatican had very old skeletons removed out of the Catacombs of Rome and lavishly decorated as a remains of acknowledged saints.
Even though mostly forgotten until Koudounaris published his book, the catacomb saints still fascinate concerned parties; they may also still encourage religious zeal. In 1977, the township of Ruttenbach in Bavaria worked hard to raise sufficient funds to buy back two of their primary saints from secretive collectors, the decorative skeletons had originally been auctioned off in 1803.
The book, that Koudounaris has surreptitiously titled ‘Heavenly Bodies’ sees its author attempt to find and photograph each of the surviving tomb saints.
In their heyday (a age that lasted over 200 years before finally coming to a close in the 19th century), the saints traversed all over the place, being transported at huge expense by the Church. They were venerated as things of devotion, or conduits for prayer.
However the saints could appear unusual to modern eyes (one Telegraph reporter described these as ‘ghastly’), it’s important to understand that people who prayed at the feet of those gilded cadavers were a great deal nearer to demise than their modern counterparts. While in the wake of The Black Death (which recurred frequently right through Europe from the 14th to the 17th Centuries), art, literature and even worship had moved to accept such ghoulish, macabre images.
The remnants were regularly adorned by nuns and sometimes placed in various realistic poses, before being secured in glass cabinets. Some of our careful decoration took as long as five years to finish, with jewellery and costumes being exceptionally impressive.
Koudounaris’ book, ‘Heavenly Bodies’ is available now.