The Numinous Dead

By Jacob MikanowskiMarch 30, 2015

Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris

TUCKED AWAY in attics, hidden under altars, and sealed in neglected shrines in the provincial churches of Switzerland and southern Germany, a spiritual army lies sleeping. They look like skeletons, but they were saints once, for a time. Their bodies belonged to pagans, Christians, and Jews — Romans who lived between the first and fifth centuries AD. Pulled from the catacombs beneath Rome in the 16th century, they were venerated as martyrs, holy figures who died on behalf of their faith. Reassembled by priests and outfitted in splendid costumes by patient nuns, they were sent north of the Alps to fight on behalf of a resurgent Catholic Church.

The technical term for the movement of a relic from one place to another is “translation.” But for the catacomb saints, simply being moved wasn’t enough. As Paul Koudounaris writes in his new book Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, the remains of the martyrs were “ideological weapons in the battle against Protestantism.” Although they left Rome as raw bone, at their destination they needed to be armed, “not with lances and muskets, but with gold, silver, and precious stones.”

In order to fight on behalf of the faith, the skeletons of the catacomb saints had to be transformed into works of bodily art. The results are astounding, and, for a modern viewer, deeply alien. Sumptuously jeweled, they wear suits of armor and bridal veils. Their bones are wrapped in gauze and tulle, and their ribs are covered in intricate patterns made from pearls and filigree wire. Wigs of golden ringlets sit atop their skulls. In their hands they hold bishop’s crooks, palm fronds, and vials of their own desiccated blood. Gemstones fill the sockets of their eyes. They stare at us across a chasm that has as much to do with mentalité as with time.

In telling the story of these extraordinary relics, Koudounaris makes a case for them as neglected masterpieces of religious art. He traces their passage from their discovery in a Roman vineyard to their rise as ghostly foot soldiers of the Counter-Reformation to their downfall as victims of enlightenment skepticism and clerical greed. Along the way, he tells a story about the passing of an old form of spiritual practice and “the disenchantment of the world,” which opens onto a consideration of lost forms of piety and religious practice.

The entrance to the catacombs was found by a group of vineyard workers on May 31, 1578. The discovery was an accident, but to the leaders of the church, it seemed like an act of providence. Across Europe, churches and the relics inside them had been destroyed in the religious wars following the Protestant Reformation. In the German lands of Central Europe, the problem worsened in the 17th century, as scores of shrines were destroyed in the Thirty Years’ War. The catacomb saints seemed like the answer to a prayer. Not only could they be used to replace the hundreds of relics that had been lost in the wars, they also represented the endurance of the one true church. Martyrs who died defending the faith in the time of the Roman Empire provided a splendid parallel to the suffering of the devout in the present. More importantly, the bodies under the Via Salaria proved that the veneration of relics was an ancient tradition, and showed — in the face of iconoclastic opposition — that the church had remained true to its origins.

That the skeletons were martyrs was taken for granted, on not very convincing evidence. A capital “M” (thought to stand for “Martyr”) anywhere near a gravesite was proof enough, even though it could well have meant “Marcus” or “Memoria.” Vials of reddish powder were taken to be martyr’s blood, although they were much more likely the remains of ancient perfume, the Roman equivalent of graveside flowers.

After papal specialists selected the bones of their chosen “martyrs,” they carefully assembled their skeletons and then had them baptized, usually with the name of a virtue, like Felix (Happiness), Clemens (Mercy) or Munditia (cleanliness, elegance). Sometimes though, the name was a frank admission that they had no idea whom the bones really belonged to, and so some skeletons received titles such as St. Anonymous, St. Incognitus, or St. Innominiabilis (the unnamed). Once the bones had been named and cataloged, papal experts issued each body a certificate of authenticity and sent them on a dangerous voyage to the north under lock and key, usually in the company of a merchant or specialist “translator.”

Despite their questionable status as actual martyrs, the catacomb saints quickly proved their efficacy as patrons and intercessors on behalf of their communities. Different saints found success with different groups. St. Munditia in Munich became the special favorite of the city’s widows and impoverished female textile workers. St. Symphorosa served as a patron saint for the nuns at her cloister. When the sisters died, their own skulls were labeled and displayed so they could remain close to her. Some served as patrons of young couples and bakers. Others were found to be particularly effective at different kinds of miracles and cures.

St. Pancratius was known to cure fevers, nosebleeds, and a case of severe incontinence that put a woman’s marriage in jeopardy. St. Leontius, whose bones “were purportedly those of a Roman noble who had been beaten with rods, cooked on a grill and finally beheaded,” was said to be able to restore life to dead babies — but only for a moment, just long enough for baptism, so they could escape purgatory. St. Donatus protected against lightning strikes better than an actual lightning rod. St. Antoninus saved a nun from choking. St. Maximus used his powers to help the poor. His skeleton secreted a mysterious golden liquid, and was associated with the appearance of a white cat. The cat wandered around the village accepting alms. In return, the cat pointed the way to small amounts of life-saving treasure.

It can be hard to know just how to look at the catacomb saints, since their appearance confounds so many of our distinctions between the morbid and the sacred, the grizzly and the sublime. Many of the skeletons have a kind of camp splendor to them. The sheer quantity of jewels can make the bodies seem like the work of a Counter-Reformation Liberace. Koudounaris describes the clothing of one saint as “something like Roman armor imagined by Charles Lewis Tiffany” and another as looking like a “skeletal sock puppet.” In trying to find suitable comparisons of my own, I came up with a list that ranged from Mexican ex-votos to Flemish danses macabres to Habsburg court portraiture, but none of these get at the mix of delirious grandeur, ostentation, and sheer bodily presence that makes these skeletons such singular works of art.

And yet, the deeper challenge posed by the skeletons in Heavenly Bodies has to do with the way they confront viewers with a type of religious faith that can now seem profoundly strange. Writing of nuns saved from choking and parishioners cured of crippling foot pain, 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, who “could be counted on to offer their miraculous powers to protect the community as a whole in times of crisis.” It has become difficult for us to imagine the role of saints in the antique and medieval worlds where they fulfilled a range of functions, from benevolent vigilantes to divine intercessors to cherished friends. In The Cult of the Saints, his great study of the origins of sainthood in Late Antique Rome, Peter Brown wrote that his subject was the “joining of Heaven and Earth, and the role in this joining, of dead human beings.” This system of belief was beautifully described by the historian William Christian in his numerous studies of Catholic practice in early modern Spain, in which he conjures a landscape thick with places in contact with the holy. Whole communities were bound together by pieces of wood and bone, and every roadside shrine was known to be capable of effecting miraculous cures or providing needed rain.

In becoming focal points of devotion for local communities, the catacomb saints passed out of the elite realm of Counter-Reformation theology and into that of folk Catholicism. In writing about the Walloon Catholicism of his Belgian childhood, Luc Sante describes it as a faith that

incorporates large and only partly digested gobs of pre-Christian animism, consists mostly of ritual and image-worship with little that could be termed theology, minimizes the Bible, selectively deploys some elements of the occult while condemning others, and derives its major emotional thrust from fear — rather than, say, pentecostal ecstasy.

I know this type of faith from my childhood spent in Poland, where on All Saints’ Day seemingly everyone in the city would go to the cemetery to light candles and pray for the dead. Even though my family is Jewish, we would go to visit the grave of my Jewish grandfather, buried in a military cemetery in the north end of Warsaw. I know it too from the year I lived in northern Morocco, where the hillsides are dotted in the whitewashed tombs of saints. The belief in saints as intercessors and the power of the dead isn’t confined to Catholicism. Islam has a strong tradition of venerating sacred places, especially the tombs of mystics and holy men. This system of beliefs is fading now though, thanks to pressure from more fundamentalist and scriptural forms of faith.

The same thing happened in the Catholic world, although in a different key. Modernity was not kind to the catacomb saints. Many of them fell victim to the forced secularizations that followed Napoleon’s invasion of Germany. Whole monasteries lost their lands and churches were forced to sell their jeweled relics at auction. Ultimately though, a more insidious process led to the demise of the cult of the holy dead. To Protestants, the sight of pilgrims worshipping in front of relics had long seemed ridiculous, if not pagan, “the earnest and devout worship of a skeleton god.” Visitors to German and Swiss churches described the shrines as “a truly hideous sight,” “disgusting,” “in the worst possible taste.”

Gradually though, these same doubts began to infect the Catholic hierarchy. Archaeologists revisited the catacombs, and realized that most of the skeletons they had sent out dated to after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and so couldn’t have been martyrs after all. What’s worse, the cult of the saints came to be seen as more and more of an embarrassment. As the 19th-century wore on, more and more of the saints were hidden away or sold off for scrap. In some places, local religious authorities had the skeletons buried in anonymous plots or stripped bare and thrown away. In others, they were stored in attics or displayed in provincial museums.

Max Weber called the process by which mysticism and tradition gave way to rational thought and scientific understanding the “Entzauberung der Welt” — “the disenchantment of the world.” It’s a development that might best be seen in a heartbreaking moment at the end of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard. The novel takes place at the beginning of the 20th century, long after the Sicilian noble family at the novel’s heart has passed its prime. The spinster sisters of the dashing Prince Fabrizio, The Leopard’s hero, now live in Palermo, sharing their apartments with a collection of 74 relics. One day, a priest, alerted to the relics’ dubious provenance by the local bishop, comes by to authenticate them and concludes that only five are genuine. The rest end up in a basket “overflowing with torn papers and cards, little boxes containing bits of bone and gristle,” destined for the junk heap. A whole way of thinking disappeared into this junk heap. A whole spiritual landscape, dotted with miraculous shrines and thick with the presence of the dead, went with it.

Gone, but maybe not for good. Koudounaris ends his story with an anecdote about a church in Rottenbuch, Germany, which lost its catacomb saints to auction at the start of the 19th century. In 1977, however, they came back. The parishioners negotiated the purchase of their beloved martyrs — Primus and Felicianus — from a church in a neighboring town. Now, translated home, the skeletons are enthroned on their old altar. Reading Heavenly Bodies I found myself wishing that more saints would join them. Even in a world stripped of enchantment, there should be a place for the presence of the numinous dead, if not for wisdom, then for mercy.


Jacob Mikanowski is a graduate student in European History at UC Berkeley.

LARB Contributor

Jacob Mikanowski is a writer based in Berkeley, California. More of his work can be found here.


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