Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs

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Overview

An intriguing visual history of the veneration in European churches and monasteries of bejeweled and decorated skeletons
Death has never looked so beautiful. The fully articulated skeleton of a female saint, dressed in an intricate costume of silk brocade and gold lace, withered fingers glittering with colorful rubies, emeralds, and pearls—this is only one of the specially photographed relics featured in Heavenly Bodies.In 1578 news came of the discovery in Rome of a labyrinth ...

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Overview

An intriguing visual history of the veneration in European churches and monasteries of bejeweled and decorated skeletons
Death has never looked so beautiful. The fully articulated skeleton of a female saint, dressed in an intricate costume of silk brocade and gold lace, withered fingers glittering with colorful rubies, emeralds, and pearls—this is only one of the specially photographed relics featured in Heavenly Bodies.In 1578 news came of the discovery in Rome of a labyrinth of underground tombs, which were thought to hold the remains of thousands of early Christian martyrs. Skeletons of these supposed saints were subsequently sent to Catholic churches and religious houses in German-speaking Europe to replace holy relics that had been destroyed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. The skeletons, known as “the catacomb saints,” were carefully reassembled, richly dressed in fantastic costumes, wigs, crowns, jewels, and armor, and posed in elaborate displays inside churches and shrines as reminders to the faithful of the heavenly treasures that awaited them after death.
Paul Koudounaris gained unprecedented access to religious institutions to reveal these fascinating historical artifacts. Hidden for over a century as Western attitudes toward both the worship of holy relics and death itself changed, some of these ornamented skeletons appear in publication here for the first time.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
12/09/2013
Koudounaris (The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses) provides the largely forgotten story of the katakombenheiligen, skeletons unearthed from Roman catacombs, intricately adorned with jewels and worshiped as martyrs, along with 90 extraordinary color photographs. The "saints," though essentially unverified, buoyed Catholic spirits in German-speaking regions during the uncertainty of the Protestant Reformation and were unceremoniously abandoned with embarrassment by the early 19th century. These supposed-sacred remains served as protectors and patron saints as well as generated massive profits in donation. They were credited with miracle cures and all sorts of healing—from breaking a fever to reviving the dead. Lovers prayed to a skeletal St. Valentine whereas St. Maximus was venerated by the poor. Koudounaris examines the "slipshod" process used by Church officials to authenticate the relics as martyrs. He also details their restoration and decoration, most notably the handiwork of Dominican nuns in Ennetach and master goldsmith Adalbart Eder. Some of the striking images include St. Deodatus in armor seated on a throne, a wax face mask concealing his skull and St. Gratian dressed in Roman military attire designed by Eder. Finally, Koudounaris recounts the backlash against the relics by Protestants and Catholics alike and their unfortunate fates. The images of the catacomb saints are dazzling, almost beyond belief, and their story captures an interesting moment of uncertainty in the Catholic Church and even some insight into the psychology of worship. 105 illus. (Oct.)
CNN.com
“Photographer and author Paul Koudounaris gained unprecedented access to these so-called ‘catacomb saints’ for his new book Heavenly Bodies. 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.”
Passport Magazine
“This macabre mash-up of camp and Catholicism features nearly 100 drop-dead images of blinged-out skeletons.”
American Society of Jewelry Historians
“A
strange and fascinating book exploring bejeweled Counter Reformation Catholic
Skeletons.”
Gems and Gemology
“Magnificently illustrated. . . . An illuminating read for jewelry historians and gemologists alike.”
Examiner.com
“The photography by Koudounaris is outstanding. He was given access that most tourists touting a camera are not.”
People.com
“Koudounaris is one of the first people to photograph the strangely stunning skeletons that have been rediscovered over the years. And while he can't speak to their authenticity as saints, he does believe that they are extraordinary works of art that deserve to be seen.”
Gothic Beauty
“A compelling read. . . . The gorgeous photos that accompany the text only reaffirm the opulence of such relics.”
Dazed Digital
“Perhaps this book is not the originator of the phrase 'skeletons in your closet,' but if it were, that closet would be looking quite stupendous.”
New York Post
“An art historian nicknamed ‘Indiana Bones’ has unearthed a haunting collection of jewel-encrusted skeletons which were hidden in churches in Europe up to 400 years ago.”
Wired.com
“These macabre images elicit a range of contemporary references, from Goonies to bling-laden rappers to artist Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull.”
Hi-Fructose
“Smart and accessible, Heavenly Bodies opens the door to this largely overlooked aspect of the Counter Reformation era.”
Palm Springs Life
“Prepared to be amazed by the splendor and beauty of ornamented skeletal remains.”
The North Coast Journal
“Koudounaris takes his subject beyond historical rubbernecking and looks at how bodies can move the spirit—and why we can’t let go and can’t look away.”
Lapham's Quarterly
“Brings to life a group of long-forgotten Catholic relics.”
Vice.com
“Investigates the historic attempts to prescribe posthumous identities to skeletons, specifically those believed to be martyrs.”
BuzzFeed
“Oh, you didn’t know the skeletons of martyrs were unabashedly decked out in gems? Welcome to the club.”
The Desert Sun
“Focuses on the life and history of a set of false relics in the Catholic Church.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780500251959
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson
  • Publication date: 10/8/2013
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 171,554
  • Product dimensions: 6.90 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Koudounaris received his doctorate from the art history department at UCLA. His previous books include The Empire of Death and Heavenly Bodies. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 27, 2013

    Creepy

    Loved it!

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