Skeletons decorated with jewels in their eye sockets, crowns of golden leaves on their fissured skulls and pearl-encrusted filigree on their ribs pose in glass cases. These are skeletons that the Catholic Church sent out in the 1500s to replenish the relics destroyed by Protestants, as well as to bolster faith in the German-speaking regions where the pope was losing influence. Creepy, but effective.
Paul Koudounaris' Heavenly Bodies: Cult treasures and spectacular saints from the catacombs digs into the strange history of these Katakombenheiligan, or "catacomb saints." Starting with the discovery of a lost catacomb in a vineyard, Koudounaris details the sketchy evidence on which the church declares the bodies martyrs (an "M" on a grave would do). From there he follows newly minted saints to villages where nuns and craftspeople bedazzle them and congregations celebrate them. He also traces the cultural and political shifts that lead to the skeletons being made over, hidden and eventually discarded.
While much of the history is for the hardcore schism fan, and there are times when Koudounaris' writing seems to have caught the decorative bug, Heavenly Bodies is still a fast read — more than half its pages are filled with color photographs of the jaw-droppingly opulent figures. On one page, a skeleton in a jeweled soldier's costume grins from a glass case like something Johnny Depp might swordfight. On another page, rings adorn delicate finger bones wrapped in cheesecloth. Like "Bodies: The Exhibition," the photos are at once repellant, fascinating and beautiful.
Koudounaris doesn't pull punches about the shady provenance of the skeletons (Saint Incognito? Really?), their political use or how they filled church coffers, both in Rome and the villages where they were sent. Neither does he mock the very powerful emotional and spiritual meaning they held (and still hold) for many of the faithful. Koudounaris takes his subject beyond historical rubbernecking and looks at how bodies can move the spirit — and why we can't let go and can't look away.
Paul Koudounaris will be at Northtown Books for a lecture and signing on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 7 p.m.