They called them Catacomb Saints – corpses of ancient Romans unearthed from the catacoms of Rome, given fictitious names and sent abroad as relics of saints from the 16th to the 8th centuries. 19. They are lavishly decorated, as you can see below.
But why – why are they so luxuriously decorated? Are they really buried like this, or has something happened? Well, they really aren’t saints in the strict sense, although some of them may have been early Christian martyrs. During the 15th century, Western Europe was rocked by the storm Beeldenstorm – the wrath of the statue – a term used to refer to an outbreak of religious image destruction. During these iconic times, Catholic art and many forms of church decoration and accessories were destroyed in informal acts or crowds.
When Catholic churches were systematically stripped of their emblems, the Vatican came up with a rather odd solution. They ordered thousands of skeletons excavated from catacombs beneath Rome and installed in towns across Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Few, if any, of the corpses belonged to people of any religious significance, but they were decorated like saints.
The skeletons became a ghastly symbol of Catholicism in areas dominated by protesters. It’s unclear when the move worked, but by the 19th century, they had become an embarrassing symbol of past frictions. Although considered imitations and prohibited from selling skeletons or their jewelry, some ‘businessmen’ priests still make money shipping them around the country and for some blessing.
In 1803, the secular magistrate of Rottenbuch in Bavaria auctioned the town’s two saints. 174 years later, in 1977, the residents of the town raised funds to have them returned, but for the most part, the catacomb saints were mostly forgotten and cast aside.
But it was their time to come in the spotlight again in 2013, when Paul Koudounaris revived interest in them with his new book, where he tried to photograph and document each and every one of the catacomb saints. It’s unclear if he actually did, but he certainly managed to bring them into the public eye. He explains:
‘They have to be handled by people who have taken a sacred oath to the church – these people are supposed to be martyrs and they cannot let anyone handle them. They are symbols of the victory faith and canonized as saints in the cities. One of the reasons they are so important is not because of their spiritual worth, which is quite unbelievable, but because of their social importance.
He also added that as time has passed, their meanings have changed, becoming from religious symbols, to city symbols.
‘They’re supposed to be miracles and really strengthen people’s relationship with a town. He added: ‘No modern-day value can be placed on skeletons.