Gruesome Beauty -- book review of "Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs"

There's a good chance that your average Catholic might have run into relics --the stray skull, vertebrae or finger bones of some long-dead saint. But complete human skeletons? And dressed up in gold and silver thread, precious gems, bejeweled armor and sumptuous robes?  And displayed in public for all to see?

Not so much.

In what might be a spectacle worthy of a horror movie, many of these relics, on display in churches throughout southern Germany, are documented by Paul Koudounaris in his extraordinary book, "Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs ." With dozens of full-page, beautifully-composed photographs as well as accessible, well-researched prose, Koudounaris tells the story of the Katakombenheiligen or Catacomb Saints . These were the supposed skeletons of Christians martyrs spirited out of Rome's catacombs from the 1600s to the 1800s, and destined to replace precious relics destroyed during the Reformation. Whether the bones could be proven to be martyrs or even Christians mattered little; the fact that they were Roman was enough to merit a trip beyond the Alps. After their "translation," or travel from Rome, they were cleaned, assembled, dressed, bejeweled, posed and displayed in churches in the German speaking world. Since in many cases the bones came without provenance, they were often named by their new owners -- either after a popular patron of a local monastery, for some virtue (St. Fortunatus, St. Clemens) or their lack of a name (St. Incognito). These town patrons were regularly removed from their niches and paraded through town for veneration, a few even in modern times.

Koudounaris brings alive a time when gruesome displays of the dead were an aid to faith. Whether you believe in the power of relics or not, the work done to them was startling. There's nothing like seeing a skull, with jewels placed in its eye sockets, staring back at you. Koudounaris also traces the history of the Catacomb Saints into the modern era, starting in the 1800s, when such displays were increasingly deemed tasteless, even to Catholics sensibilities. Indeed, many of the Catacomb Saints now languish behind discrete covers, or in dusty backrooms under broken furniture and other liturgical detritus.

I found the text of "Heavenly Bodies" stark, honest and unsparing but never dismissive. And that even tone helped me to inhabit the mind of those who once found such treasures to be -- not off-putting and tasteless -- but a moving testament to faith in the resurrection.

For more of Paul Koudounaris' images of  catacomb saints, check this link: