By Allison Meier | Atlas Obscura
The afterlife is just more elegant for some of us. In a state of repose in churches around Germany, Switzerland, and Austria are these jeweled skeletons ornately decked out for their eternal rest. Yet despite their fascinating garb, they have been almost forgotten.
A new book coming out this October by LA-based photographer and author Paul Koudounaris — called Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, published by Thames & Hudson — brings these beautiful corpses out of obscurity. Back in 2011, Koudounaris published a book on ossuaries called The Empire of Death, and here he takes a step further into the religious veneration of sacred remains.
The jeweled skeletons were originally found in catacombs beneath Rome in 1578, and distributed as replacements under the belief they were Christian martyrs to churches that had lost their saint relics in the Reformation. However, for most, their identities were not known. The receiving churches then spent years covering the revered skeletal strangers with jewels and golden clothing, even filling their eye sockets and sometimes adorning their teeth with finery. Yet when the Enlightenment came around they became a little embarrassing for the sheer amount of money and excess they represented, and many were hidden away or disappeared. Koudounaris tracked down the dead survivors.
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READ: Bizarre Catacombs, Death Cult? Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Italy