Jewelled skeletons

Jewelled skeletons that revitalised the faith of Catholics during the Counter-Reformation in Europe are featured in a new book by art historian and photographer Paul Koudounaris.

Skeleton of St Valerius covered in jewels

About the book

Jewelled skeletons that revitalised the faith of Catholics during the Counter-Reformation in Europe are featured in a new book by art historian and photographer Paul Koudounaris.

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In Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, Koudounaris captures images of more than 70 bodies, clad in intricate costumes and dazzling jewellery.

The skeletons were discovered in the Roman Catacombs
in the late 16th century. Believed to be the remains of early Christian martyrs, they were treated as sacred.

Sent to Catholic churches and religious houses in German-speaking Europe to replace the relics that had been destroyed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the skeletons were reassembled and richly adorned with precious jewels and costumes.

Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, published by Thames & Hudson, is available to purchase from 9 September.

Skeleton of St Valerius covered in jewels
St Valerius in Weyarn, Germany © 2013 Paul Koudounaris
St Benedictus skeleton covered in jewels
St Benedictus © 2013 Paul Koudounaris

This St Benedictus was received by the church of St Michael even though it was not a Benedictine foundation but a court for Clemens August I of Bavaria.

St Albertus in the church of St George in Burgrain, Germany
St Albertus in the church of St George in Burgrain, Germany © 2013 Paul Koudounaris

The arrival of St Albertus’ remains from the Roman Catacombs in 1723 was a source of great excitement for the parishioners of the church. They offered a glimpse of the heavenly treasures that awaited the faithful.

Skull with jewelled headpiece
Deodatus in Roggenburg, Germany © 2013 Paul Koudounaris

In addition to its four complete skeletons, the church in Roggenburg owns a pair of skull relics. This one was given the generic name of Deodatus, as its identity was unknown.

Jewelled skull of St Getreu in Ursberg
St Getreu in Ursberg, Germany © 2013 Paul Koudounaris

The skull of St Getreu in Ursberg is covered in silk mesh and fine wirework set with gemstones, which may have been done in Mindelheim, Germany.

St Felix jewelled skeleton
St Felix in Sursee, Switzerland © 2013 Paul Koudounaris

St Felix arrived in 1761 and was decorated to match St Irenaus, brought over a century before by Johann Rudolf Pfyffer of the papal Swiss Guard.

Skeleton hand of St Valentin with gold rings
St Valentin in Bad Schussenreid, Germany © 2013 Paul Koudounaris

Detail of the hand of St Valentin in Bad Schussenreid, Germany, one of a number of Katakombenheiligen named for the popular Italian saint.

St Friedrich at the Benedictine abbey in Melk, Austria © 2013 Paul Koudounaris
St Friedrich at the Benedictine abbey in Melk, Austria © 2013 Paul Koudounaris

St Friedrich is presented in a typical reclining pose and holds laurel branch as a sign of victory.

St Valentinus' skeleton
St Valentinus in Waldsassen, Germany © 2013 Paul Koudounaris

Decorated by the skilled lay brother Adalbart Eder, St Valentinus wears a biretta and an elaborate, elegantly jewelled version of a deacon’s cassock to emphasise his ecclesiastical status.

Skeleton of St Vincentus with leaves
St Vincentus in Stams, Austria © 2013 Paul Koudounaris
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St Vincentus’ ribs are exposed beneath a web of golden leaves. The hand raised to cover the face is a gesture of modesty.