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Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs [Hardcover]

Paul Koudounaris
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 8, 2013 0500251959 978-0500251959 1

An intriguing visual history of the veneration in European churches and monasteries of bejeweled and decorated skeletons

Death has never looked so beautiful. The fully articulated skeleton of a female saint, dressed in an intricate costume of silk brocade and gold lace, withered fingers glittering with colorful rubies, emeralds, and pearls—this is only one of the specially photographed relics featured in Heavenly Bodies.

In 1578 news came of the discovery in Rome of a labyrinth of underground tombs, which were thought to hold the remains of thousands of early Christian martyrs. Skeletons of these supposed saints were subsequently sent to Catholic churches and religious houses in German-speaking Europe to replace holy relics that had been destroyed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. The skeletons, known as “the catacomb saints,” were carefully reassembled, richly dressed in fantastic costumes, wigs, crowns, jewels, and armor, and posed in elaborate displays inside churches and shrines as reminders to the faithful of the heavenly treasures that awaited them after death.

Paul Koudounaris gained unprecedented access to religious institutions to reveal these fascinating historical artifacts. Hidden for over a century as Western attitudes toward both the worship of holy relics and death itself changed, some of these ornamented skeletons appear in publication here for the first time.
105 illustrations, 90 in color

Frequently Bought Together

Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs + The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses + Cabinets of Wonder
Price for all three: $90.62

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Editorial Reviews


“These macabre images elicit a range of contemporary references, from Goonies to bling-laden rappers to artist Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull.” (

“Perhaps this book is not the originator of the phrase 'skeletons in your closet,' but if it were, that closet would be looking quite stupendous.” (Dazed Digital)

“An art historian nicknamed ‘Indiana Bones’ has unearthed a haunting collection of jewel-encrusted skeletons which were hidden in churches in Europe up to 400 years ago.” (New York Post)

“Photographer and author Paul Koudounaris gained unprecedented access to these so-called ‘catacomb saints’ for his new book Heavenly Bodies. Many had never been photographed for publication before. Revered as spiritual objects and then reviled as a source of embarrassment for the Church, their uneven history is marked by one constant: a mysterious, if unsettling, beauty.” (

“A compelling read. . . . The gorgeous photos that accompany the text only reaffirm the opulence of such relics.” (Gothic Beauty)

“Smart and accessible, Heavenly Bodies opens the door to this largely overlooked aspect of the Counter Reformation era.” (Hi-Fructose)

“Prepared to be amazed by the splendor and beauty of ornamented skeletal remains.” (Palm Springs Life)

“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.” (The North Coast Journal)

“Brings to life a group of long-forgotten Catholic relics.” (Lapham's Quarterly)

“Investigates the historic attempts to prescribe posthumous identities to skeletons, specifically those believed to be martyrs.” (

“Oh, you didn’t know the skeletons of martyrs were unabashedly decked out in gems? Welcome to the club.” (BuzzFeed)

“Focuses on the life and history of a set of false relics in the Catholic Church.” (The Desert Sun)

“The images of the catacomb saints are dazzling, almost beyond belief.” (Publishers Weekly)

“This macabre mash-up of camp and Catholicism features nearly 100 drop-dead images of blinged-out skeletons.” (Passport Magazine)

“A strange and fascinating book exploring bejeweled Counter Reformation Catholic Skeletons.” (American Society of Jewelry Historians)

About the Author

Paul Koudounaris received his doctorate from the art history department at UCLA. His previous books include The Empire of Death and Heavenly Bodies. He lives in Los Angeles.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson; 1 edition (October 8, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0500251959
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500251959
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.9 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #71,395 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

PhD, Art History UCLA; I live in Los Angeles, CA, USA. I photograph and write about some very fascinating dead people throughout the world. Personal website is Facebook page for the books Empire of Death and Heavenly Bodies is There are a couple talks coming up--please click on my author page and scroll down to see list of events.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars SPECTACULAR September 27, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is just stuffed with gobs of full color pictures of heavily, *insanely* over-decorated, bedazzled, Counter Reformation skeletonised saints. Lots of close ups, too. If you like skeletons, holy relics, sparkly things, and the baroque, then this is the book for you. It's definitely the book for me.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heavenly Bodies is truly a fun read October 27, 2013
The author makes this fascinating, but relatively unstudied field surprisingly accessible to the reader. After I finished reading it, my friend's 16 year old daughter picked it up and could not put it down for hours. Beyond the substantive content, the pictures are simply amazing, and it makes for an awesome conversation piece/coffee table book.
My girlfriend is always trying to get me interested in art books, often (with the exceptional ocassion) without much sucess, mostly because of the pretentious writing that tends to seep into these types of publications. Paul Koudounaris' writing is different: not only acessible, but truly fun and entertaining, yet still informative and fascinating. I suppose one has to, when writing about the fun and the beauty in death, and I'd much rather self-educate with a smile.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant October 21, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Absolutely love it!!! Was everything I had hoped I just have to figure out how I'm going to get to see these in person.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful October 19, 2013
By Martijn
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A great book that couldn't go wrong for me as it beautifully combines 2 of my interests: photography and history. The photos are beautiful and the text is very informative. The only 'gripe' with my book is that isn't bigger! I'd love a 'jumbo' version of this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gruesome Beauty November 26, 2013
There's a good chance that your average Catholic might have run into relics -- the stray skull, vertebrae or finger bones of some long-dead saint. But complete human skeletons? And dressed up in gold and silver thread, precious gems, bejeweled armor and sumptuous robes? And displayed in public for all to see?

Not so much.

In what might be a spectacle worthy of a horror movie, many of these relics, on display in churches throughout southern Germany, are documented by Paul Koudounaris in his extraordinary book, "Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs." With dozens of full-page, beautifully-composed photographs as well as accessible, well-researched prose, Koudounaris tells the story of the Katakombenheiligen or Catacomb Saints. These were the supposed skeletons of Christians martyrs spirited out of Rome's catacombs from the 1600s to the 1800s, and destined to replace precious relics destroyed during the Reformation. Whether the bones could be proven to be martyrs or even Christian mattered little; the fact that they were Roman was enough to merit a trip beyond the Alps. After their "translation," or travel from Rome, they were cleaned, assembled, dressed, bejeweled, posed and displayed in churches in the German speaking world. Since in many cases the bones came without provenece, they were often named by their new owners -- either after a popular patron of a local monastery, for some virtue (St. Fortunatus, St. Felicity) or their lack of a name (St. Incognito). These town patrons were regularly removed from their niches and paraded through town for veneration, a few even in modern times.

Koudounaris brings alive a time when gruesome displays of the dead were an aid to faith.
Read more ›
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful detailed pictures October 22, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
About time that somebody wrote a book about these amazing works of religious art. It is also a source of inspiration for those who make "Klosterarbeiten".
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars amazing book October 21, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Unusual subject, a very comprehensive book with a plethora of excellent photography and references. A treat for those who study irrational human behavior or history or both.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Expecting For More January 31, 2014
The first book of Dr. Koudanaris gave us an in depth treatment
of the Ossuaries from the different parts of the World. It was
a good work.

However, Heavenly Bodies failed to deliver the same scholarly expertise.
Theses topics were already discussed in other books and I was expecting
more stories about the Catacomb Saints. Although the reproduction of the
pictures was well done, but almost limited.

I am still looking forward for the Bibliography consulted for this work.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 2 days ago by S. Richard
5.0 out of 5 stars So pretty!
Completely amazing and gorgeous, as well as being full of historical information. I can't stop looking at the gorgeous pictures.
Published 6 days ago by Rhias K. Hall
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Book
Great read! Gives a great history of the religious icons. Some surprising details as well. A great book for those interested in religion and the macabre
Published 1 month ago by Dallas
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
My daughter has been "into bones" for years and this wonderfully illustrated book now has a place of honor on her bookshelf. Happy birthday Kendra!
Published 2 months ago by Carolyn A. Le Vesque
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful book....
Yes I bought it primarily as I was intrigued with the photography, but loved diving into the stories and history.
Published 4 months ago by Marisa Calvi
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Pictures!
I have a large collection of "coffee table" books and this is a great addition to my collection. Read more
Published 5 months ago by mercedes kloock
5.0 out of 5 stars Grim but fasinating
My husband and I are jewelers, and the pictures in this book show a lot of interesting historical styles in situ. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Badger
5.0 out of 5 stars love it
Fabulous pictures, and a really interesting and great story. The book is highly recomended for those who like illustrated, amazing history.
Published 5 months ago by trine danielsen
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning Book
The photographs are just amazing. Its just so gorgeous, well thought out, researched and formatted book. I'm so happy to own it. Great work Mr. Koudounaris.
Published 5 months ago by Ange
5.0 out of 5 stars awesome book !!
Great book, fair price and excellent size!!!!!!!!

good design and lots of high quality photos!!

highly recommended for your collection
Published 5 months ago by marimo
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