Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs
After the Protestant Reformation laid waste to a host of Catholic Church relics along with the Church’s stranglehold on the hearts and minds of much of Europe, the Church embarked on what can only be called a massive rebranding campaign. Every good branding campaign needs a good spokesperson, mascot, or other placeholder. In the case of the Catholic Church these turned out to be persons for the faithful to identify with and pray to for intercession. With the sanction of the Holy See, Church officials descended into a recently discovered (1578) catacomb and pulled out the skeletonized remains of people they assumed (or outright just declared) were martyrs from around 300 AD, gave them saints names, and shipped them off to churches around Europe for display as relics. Most of these remains were first articulated, decorated in resplendent finery (jewels, gold filigree, fine cloth, expensive armor), and posed by artistically inclined nuns before translation to final destinations in prominent locations in churches and cathedrals across Europe.
This book by Paul Koudounaris has dozens of photos of these macabre, yet beautiful, works of art. In the text, around which the images are interspersed, he explains how these heavenly bodies were decorated and what became of many of them after the church (about 250 years after the start of this practice), worried that the veneration of these created relics had crossed over into heresy, declared that the practice was no longer sanctioned.
I found this history fascinating because in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition the body after death is without exception burned or buried and never kept around for any kind of devotion. The dead body is regarded as an empty shell with nothing left of what made the original owner a devotional human. The three traditions have a concept of an afterlife and of the resurrection of the soul. There is no need of the original body till the judgement, when, in the Christian tradition, the body will be reassembled and reunited with the soul. There is the notion of bodies that are determined to be remarkably well preserved several years after death, as a step in the long process of being considered for Sainthood in the Catholic Christian tradition, but after exhumation and examination the bodies are returned to their resting place, not put on subsequent display.
Still, all analysis aside, the branding campaign resulted in a resurgence in the devotion of the faithful but whether it helped to staunch the flow of Catholics into the arms of reformers is anyone’s guess. The pictures in the book are, at first arresting, but after flipping through several, it is like looking at elaborate halloween decorations, what I imagine skeletons might be decked out with at the Trump halloween bash, a tad gaudy. The history of these macabre works of art will be interesting for anyone fascinated by religious history and tradition, in particular that of the Catholic Church.