If you are in the market for a coffee table book that will certainly get people talking, I can not recommend enough Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris. This photo-heavy book explores the surviving examples of Catacomb Saints. What’s a Catacomb Saint you say?
Well in response to the Beeldenstrom (Statue Storm) also known as the Iconoclastic Fury (which is the best band name ever) of the Reformation the Catholic Church decided to counter with what was a weird PR campaign even for the 16th century.
The old Roman Catacombs were opened and bodies were removed and ornately embellished with silk, cloth of gold, faux beards, jeweled eyes, and ringlet wigs. The handiwork was done mostly by nuns that painstakingly adorned the bodies in precious and semi-precious stones, pearls, and gold, which was far from cheap even back in the day.
Each saint took several months to several years to produce depending on the level of intricacies. These tarted-up corpses were then sent to Northern Europe, mainly Bavaria, to serve as icons and draw people back to the Catholic church.
The thing is, from the very beginning everyone knew these were not the bodies of the saints in questions. Often rich families paid for these fake saints to be enshrined in their local church and encouraged them to be named after the patron. In the end, it just sort of proved the point the Reformation was trying to make about icons, the misplaced priorities of the Church and conspicuous spending. Most of the Catacomb Saints were disassembled, forgotten, or put into storage. Tracking down these forgotten saints was no small task for Koudounaris, who found one of the saints in a storage unit and other in a forgotten cupboard of a German church (much to the surprise of the staff and clergy that walked past it for decades not knowing what was inside.)
Koudounaris does a great job in presenting these unique pieces of human art to the general public in a very approachable, low creep factor, way. It’s a great gift for the gothy teenager in your life. All I know is my husband better start saving up because when the time comes, I want the fully bedazzled look (maybe without the jewel and fabric eyes though).
You can get Heavenly Bodies here, and can see Koudounaris’ other work here
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