While photographing a crypt full of skulls in Eastern Germany doing research two years ago, Paul Koudounaris, an art historian who specializes in the visual culture surrounding death, was asked by a stranger if he'd like to see a skeleton covered in jewels holding a cup of its own dehydrated blood.
For Koudounaris, the answer was a no-brainer.
"For a guy who was going around the world studying bone rooms, that was like asking a child if he wanted to go to Candyland," said the Los Angeles resident who is set to talk this Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at the Glendale Central Library about 17th century decorated skeletons from Europe.
At first, Koudounaris thought the skeleton with the dehydrated blood, which he found after the stranger gave him directions to a run-down chapel, was the only one. Then he discovered more hidden away, all decorated from head to toe in jewels.
In 2013, his book, "Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs," was published. It tells of the so-called "Catacomb Saints," who were described as early Christian martyrs by the Catholic Church.
Why were the skeletons decorated?
Paul Koudounaris: They were decorated this way as a kind of public relations measure for the Catholic Church. Back in the 17th century, in particular, the church was locked in a very tense struggle for territory with the Protestants, and these skeletons were sent to those regions, primarily German-speaking areas, to show people that God saves his greatest glory — literally glory, this incredible opulence represented by the jeweled bodies — for those who are true in their faith…. A martyr, of course, represents the ultimate in faith, giving one's life is the ultimate act of devotion. So they were kind of perfect role models for a church in distress, trying to motivate its devotees.
Who keeps the relics and how did you get access to them?
Some of the relics are still in their original churches, but many more are not. I photographed maybe 200 for this book, but if that seems like a lot, understand that they once may have numbered in the thousands. Many were cast out after the Enlightenment. They were considered objects of superstitious devotion, and the jewels were ripped away and sold as scrap, with the bones being tossed in the trash. Of those that survive, like I said, some are still in their original churches, but many are locked away in storage units. Some were disassembled and placed in caskets — many of those which still exist are hidden away. Access was never a big problem — the big problem was tracking them down, and I had to use a lot of old archival materials to figure out where they went to. But once I found them, usually in small towns, and contacted the church or institution that was storing them, they were almost always amenable to me coming to photograph them.
What is one of the most interesting things you've learned about the skeletons?
They were members of a society, they had roles to play. People gave them something — devotion — and they gave something in return, based on whatever miraculous powers they were thought to have. Sometimes the research into the skeletons was surreal — one could prevent urinary incontinence, another prowled the city in the guise of large white cat. There was another pair who were believed to be able to remove the odor from stinking objects. Like I said, sometimes this research was surreal; very bizarre powers were attributed to them.
Why should people nowadays care about them?
They are incredible works of art…. OK, sure, they are preposterous devotional items in the eyes of the modern world, and they are not even the skeletons of the people they were supposed to be. It is understandable they were cast aside. But there is a due they have still not been given. They are exceptional works of art, incredible textile, jewelry and metal-smithing work went into creating them.