I first saw this book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris, in Canterbury last Christmas. We have certain traditions each Christmas but one I have enjoyed us starting is our trip to ‘somewhere new’. Usually in the days that fall between Christmas and New Years, we take the chance to go for a wander around a town or city we typically never frequent. Last Christmas it was Canterbury and it was there that we came across a quaint bookstore, with this gem in the store window; which I just couldn’t resist.
I know it’s odd but as I have touched on in my Highgate posts, there’s something quite fascinating to me about how people honour their dead. The whole concept of death while something many shy away from, I personally find quite interesting. Maybe it’s from when I was a kid and learning about the ancient Egyptian mummies and their way of life. The ceremonies and rituals they performed to honour their dead and be sure they reached the afterlife was, and still is something I find beyond fascinating. With that in mind, seeing this book with its adorned skeleton on the front was mesmerising to me and I needed it.
Discovered on 31st May 1578, a hollow passageway was found by vineyard workers along Rome’s via Salaria, which led to the entrance of coemeterium jordanorum (Jordanian Cemetery) -an early christian burial site and catacombs. As time passed and researchers kept exploring, they discovered other catacombs including the cemetery of Priscilla along with a myriad of other galleries and passageways hailing back to the earliest days of the faith. Over the next 200 years, remains identified as martyrs would be fashioned into a type of sacred relic and sent to different regions all over. This is what Koudounaris’s book is about.
While no one was quite sure whose bones were down there, the consensus was that they must certainly be sacred because they dated from the blood-soaked days of state-sponsored persecutionsp. 33
He does such a wonderful job of really delving into the history of these figures and how they were perceived at the time. For instance, when they were first unearthed – a time when the continent was in a religious war, the Catholics saw these as weapons against the Protestants who had been attacking the holy relics of their church. The Germanic wars had destroyed so many sacred relics so the discovery of these martyr’ed figures came at such an opportune moment. Looking back at a time when religion was an integral part of everyday life, the discovery of such relics during such a period of unrest would have surely seemed like a gift from God.
Koudounaris even goes through the detail of identification and adornment of these relics. They’d be adorned by nuns who had often fled their homelands to seek refuge in Catholic Rome, and then they’d be sent to the guilders and goldsmiths. One particularly famous for his handiwork with the relics was that of Adalbart Eder who decorated the catacomb saints and was known for his ‘technical skill‘ in this area. These relics would then be transported North through the continent and this took place for over two centuries. They would also travel accompanied with their own official documents of authenticity and even assumed their own given identity, through either personas or roles from how they were found.
What I really loved about Koudounaris’s analysis of these saints, was how he not only went through their history and the roles they assumed in religion but also how this fit in with the public and how they united so many. They served to unite so many through different social and economic classes, forming a communal identity through religion and what they represented. Anchoring so many together through religious unity in their worship and festivities to celebrate these saintly figures.
While the relics were publicly supported by the Vatican and it had stood by the authenticity of the martyrs, many in the know were skeptical which provided ammunition for those on the Protestant side. Koudounaris touches on the downfall of the relics beautifully, going through every angle of their fall; such as some saying the relics were symbols of Catholic hypocrisy, adorned in such a level of finery that nuns and priests were said to have shunned. He goes into the details more in-depth but states that as generations passed more and more became sceptical and even embarrassed by the relics as more accounts surfaced of the dubious nature of their authenticity. It didn’t help matters that by the mid-nineteenth century, Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi embarked on a study of the catacombs producing a catalogue of the burials and remains there. His findings were damning and sealed the relics demise, which again is detailed so rigorously by the author; he must have spent so long collecting and reading accounts throughout history.
A large part, if not the majority of the book is taken up by the photography of the remaining saints. While many have been destroyed or fell into states of disrepair, some have survived in their original condition and appearances. The photos show the details of the adorned saints in such a crisp and specific manner. The finery and gems that embellishes the remaining relics is just astounding. It’s easy to see how this level of decoration would anger some, especially when you consider that Koudounaris only managed to photograph the remaining relics of what were once sent out in the thousands and many have been entirely destroyed since the height of this practice.
While this book was a more macabre read and some of the appearances in the photos even unnerved me at times, I did enjoy this book. It was so detailed in its depiction of the saints history, remaining neutral so you could see all sides of the way they were viewed. It’s definitely a book I will keep in my library forever and I know that Paul Koudounaris has some other works too that sound right up my alley so hopefully I can get my hands on those soon too. It’s not a book I would recommend to everyone as I know the subject matter and photography would disturb some, but if it is your type of thing or sounds interesting then I would definitely check it out. It would make a great read for the spooky season ahead!
Cheerio for now!