An astonishing true story materializes in the pages of Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs (Thames & Hudson, $29.95). The improbable tale begins with the rediscovery in 1578 of an ancient Roman subterranean cemetery—catacombs brimming with the remains of Christians who lived in the time of Roman persecution. To believers, they hearkened back to the inception of Christianity itself and were probably the bones of Christian martyrs, sacred and singled out by God.
Veneration of sacred relics was already entrenched in the 16th-century Church, but the practice had come under fire. To counter criticism in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, Church officials began to systematically ship fully articulated skeletons to monasteries and churches throughout Europe, “affirming the very thing their adversaries had rejected.” Cloaked in breathtaking finery and given saints’ names, the catacomb skeletons became rallying points for the faithful.
It didn’t last, of course. Over the centuries, the catacomb saints became sources of embarrassment for the Church; many suffered ignominious ends. Heavenly Bodies chronicles both the love of the faithful for these macabre saints and the creeping doubts about them engendered by the Enlightenment. But to fully appreciate the multifaceted history of these relics, skillfully laid out by author Dr. Paul Koudounaris, you first have to stop gawking at the pictures. Which is easier said than done.
These are skeletons resplendent in finery so elaborate and so gaudy it seems unreal—skulls and rib cages and bony fingers, some cased in gauze or tulle, crusted with jewels in bands and florets, laced with precious metals. We see jewels for eyes, unnerving waxen visages, jaws reinforced with ornate filigree and bones laid into wooden armatures to give the impression of corporeal glory. The sheer expense and artisanship on display in Koudounaris’ photographs offer a glimpse into an unsuspected, alien arm of our own Western heritage.
The scholar, author and photographer comes to gallery-of-the-weird Stranger Factory (109 Carlisle NE) to present an illustrated lecture on the discovery of these incredible caches on Friday, Nov. 22, at 6pm. The lecture and book signing for Heavenly Bodies is free, and the topic is jaw-dropping. Come ready to gawk—this is the only event in New Mexico where you’ll see anything like this.