Were they holy relics, or disgusting displays of hypocrisy?
A relic from the Holy Catacombs of Pancratius, originally from Prince Abbey of St. Gall, courtesy of the Historical Museum of St. Gallen, photo by David Bu.
The jeweled skeletons and ‘mummified’ corpses of catacomb saints represent one of the creepiest passages in the long history of the Catholic Church.
The Protestant Reformation unleashed the Beeldenstorm, a wave of iconoclasm across Europe and England in the 16th century. The result was the destruction of significant cultural works, including many more Northern European Renaissance paintings than were ever saved.
Altar of St. Almachus, a ‘hermit martyred in Rome.’ He was moved in 1788 from the monastery of St. Anna in Bregenz and reconstituted by the nuns of Bonlanden in 1910, courtesy Bene 16 on wiki.
In England, 90% of religious art was destroyed in the years following the Reformation. The percentages are probably similar in Germany and the Low Countries. The purge extended equally to music and literature.
The Beeldenstormalso suppressed another uniquely Catholic tradition, the display and veneration of body parts of former saints. Consider the earthly remains of St. Thomas Becket, canonized a mere two years after his death in 1170. A stone cover was placed over his tomb, with two holes through which pilgrims could kiss his casket. Shortly thereafter, his bones were moved to an elaborate, gold-plated and bejeweled shrine behind the high altar in Trinity Chapel. The anniversary of that move became a major holiday in its own right. Becket’s bones attracted countless pilgrims for three hundred years, until Henry VIII ordered the obliteration of the tomb, the bones, and even his name.
|In addition to lying in state in Canterbury, St. Thomas Becket’s body parts were distributed through Europe in Limoges caskets like this. About 45 examples remain. This one courtesy of the British Museum.|
The Counter-Reformationbrought a hunger for all that missing iconography. In response, the Vatican sent out bespoke saints to the faithful. Hundreds of thousands of anonymous skeletons were exhumed from the Christian catacombs beneath Rome and sent to previously-Protestant areas. Their recipients assumed they were early Christian martyrs.
Some came already decorated from Rome. In other cases, donors lavished thousands of dollars of jewels and gold on them. Some have jewels wired to their bones, some have wax features covering their skulls, some wear silk ‘faces’ or crocheted skin. Finishing a catacomb saint could take up to five years of painstaking, skilled work.
The jeweled skeleton of St. Benedictus, from Paul Koudounaris’ Heavenly Bodies (see below).
They were then proudly displayed in their new churches. They were focal points of veneration and symbols of the resurgent Church flexing its power.
Although the identities—even the gender—of the skeletons were unknown, it is possible they were those of real Christian martyrs. The early Christians preferred burial to the prevailing Roman practice of cremation. Martyrs were laid to rest under the city in secret. After Christianity was decriminalized in the 4th century, the practice of catacomb burial slowly tapered off. The tombs were forgotten. In 1578, they were spectacularly and conveniently rediscovered, just in time to send dead saints out to reclaim Europe from the Protestants.
|An x-ray of ‘St. Aurelius’ reveals missing parts. It’s impossible to tell the gender of the skeleton. Courtesy Stefan Alves, from Imagem-relicário de Santo Aurélio mártir pertencente à Sé Catedral do Porto, by Joana Palmeirao.|
The arrival of these remains was usually a source of great excitement for local parishes. It offered a tangible connection between the martyrs and their own recent persecutions.
|St. Aurelius’ sandal reveals that he was a pre-fab job assembled in Rome. Courtesy Joana Palmeirão, 2015, Imagem-relicário de Santo Aurélio mártir pertencente à Sé Catedral do Porto.|
And then came the modern age and embarrassment about what everyone knew were trumped-up saints. Today only a handful of the catacomb saints remain. It has only been since the publication of Paul Koudounaris’ Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs that they’ve regained any kind of attention at all.