The Bejewelled Roman Catacomb Saints of Germany, Austria and Switzerland

Many will be familiar with the usual presentation of relics that are found in so many of our churches. They generally come in the form of a small piece of bone (or otherwise) and these in turn are frequently displayed in ostensory-like shaped reliquaries, or sometimes in the form of busts, statues or other anthropomorphized shapes which contain the relic; other times reliquary chests which might hold a skull or some other large piece of bone. All of these are fairly typical. 

However, within some places in Northern Europe, one can find something quite different; namely, entire skeletons that have been vested in bejewelled forms. These particular relics are the result of the discoveries of Roman catacombs with deposits of remains which were deemed to be early Roman martyrs. These relics were sent from Rome in their unadulterated, raw form to parts of Northern Europe as a means of recovering the losses of so many relics having been destroyed in the Protestant reformation as well as promoting Catholic piety. Upon receipt of the bones, local guilds and faithful would work to have them decorated as you see them.

What makes these relics unique is both their presentation, fantastically and richly dressed as they are (which, it should be remembered, was not focused on the material but rather on the spiritual), as well as the fact they are substantially in tact skeletons, frequently posed, rather than just small fragments.

Let's take a look at a few of these curious and spectacular relics.

Those who want to read more about this may wish to acquire the book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris.  Koudounaris offers the following perceptive comment about these relics and their presentation in an interview about them and his book:
This is a culture that doesn't see death as macabre, and it still exists in most of the world outside of [modern] Europe and the USA.
It is a point which I think important for, especially since the later 19th century in Europe and North America, we have frequently found ourselves within a culture that has increasingly sought to avoid the reality of death and sanitize and sentimentalize religion into a saccharine form. This has in turn allowed others to co-opt such symbols and realities, twisting them into something associated with the demonic and evil.  However, long before skeletons and skulls became the seemingly proprietary subject of heavy metal bands or the occult, they were the subject of meditation and veneration within Catholic chapels and churches.

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