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Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs 1st Edition
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“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.” (CNN.com)
“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.” (Vice.com)
“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)
“Magnificently illustrated. . . . An illuminating read for jewelry historians and gemologists alike.” (Gems and Gemology)
“The photography by Koudounaris is outstanding. He was given access that most tourists touting a camera are not.” (Examiner.com)
“Koudounaris is one of the first people to photograph the strangely stunning skeletons that have been rediscovered over the years. And while he can't speak to their authenticity as saints, he does believe that they are extraordinary works of art that deserve to be seen.” (People.com)
“In telling the story of these extraordinary relics, Koudounaris makes a case for them as neglected masterpieces of religious art. . . . Koudounaris uncovers a lost world of religious devotion, in which sanctified remains could control the weather, save souls from purgatory, and serve as all-purpose patrons.” (Los Angeles Review of Books)
About the Author
Top Customer Reviews
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.
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 provenance, 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. Whether you believe in the power of relics or not, the work done to them was exquisite and startling. There's nothing like seeing a skull, with jewels placed in its eye sockets, staring back at you. Koudounaris also traces the history of the Catacomb Saints into the modern era, starting in the 1800s, when such displays were increasingly deemed tasteless, even to Catholic sensibilities. Indeed, many of the Catacomb Saints now languish behind discrete covers, or in dusty backrooms under broken furniture and other liturgical detritus.
I found the text of "Heavenly Bodies" stark, honest and unsparing but never dismissive. And that even tone helped me to inhabit the mind of those who once found such treasures to be -- not off-putting and tasteless -- but a moving testament to faith in the resurrection.
"In 1578 a labyrinth of underground burials was discovered in Rome that contained the remains of thousands of individuals assumed to be early Christian martyrs. The bones were disinterred and sent to many Catholic churches and religious houses in German-speaking Europe to replace holy relics that had been destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. Reassembled by skilled artisans, encrusted with gold and jewels and richly dressed in fantastic costumes, the skeletons were displayed in elaborate public shrines as reminders of the spiritual treasures that awaited the faithful after death. For nearly three centuries these ‘Heavenly Bodies’ were venerated as miracle-workers and protectors of their communities until doubts about their authenticity surfaced in the modern era. They then became a source of embarrassment for the Church and most were destroyed or hidden away.
The book includes arresting images of more than seventy spectacular jeweled skeletons and the fascinating stories of dozens more, accompanied by rare archive material. This is the first time that some of these incredible relics – both intriguing historical artifacts and masterpieces of artistic craftsmanship in their own right – have appeared in a publication, with Koudounaris gaining unprecedented access to photograph in some of the most secretive religious establishments in Europe.Meticulously researched and beautifully written, this is a tour de force of original cultural history with deepest resonances for a modern audience fascinated by visual representations of death."
More than a photography book, Heavenly Bodies is a beautifully haunting history of the catacomb saints taken from Rome by the Catholic Church centuries ago. Koudoumaris does a fantastic job of weaving the tale of the discovery of the skeletons, their issue to the towns that revered them, and the eventual, horrific downfall of their esteem. I found the narrative extremely easy to digest, and fascinating on so many levels.
Decidedly Gothic in style and feeling, the catacomb saints have been seen as holy relics, and as disgusting displays of hypocrisy. Wisely refusing to engage in a theological debate, Koudoumaris outlines in sympathy the "life" and fate of these exquisitely decorated skeletons.
Originally numbering in the hundreds of thousands, these days only a handful of the catacomb saints remain, having been put away in storage or caskets, destroyed, or vandalised. Many have passed out of history all together.
Though macabre, the photography was absolutely gorgeous, and the high-quality paper and print of the book made it an absolute pleasure to look through and observe. Something deeply unsettling reaches out through the pictures, as if they are alive in their intimate, reticulated poses, with Koudoumaris's camera portraying the melancholy and sadness in the silence of their altars. Truly one of the best photography books I have seen in a long while, about a subject exceedingly interesting and unique.
Though I wish I could show you every photo, I instead insist you go out and get a copy, because it deserves a slot on your bookshelf. While you're waiting for it to be delivered, you can check out this small Pinterest board: