The Body as Art: The Jewelled Saint (Scent the Scene)

In this series, we examine aspects of death and bereavement through art, olfaction, and imaginative thinking. Feel free to follow along at home and leave your take on this scented death meditation below. 

This Week’s Muse

This month we are going to be examining human remains used in artistic pieces. Some of these works serve a religious or political objective, but all have required manipulation after death for purposes of aesthetics not related to the preservation of the actual person’s appearance, blurring the line between the individual and the work of art.  This week’s gore rating is 1 for real human bones and garish amounts of jewellery. So let’s get started.

St. Valerius of Weyarn, Photo by Paul Koudounaris

St-Valerius-in-Weyarn--001

Katakombenheilgen was a word even most German speakers were not familiar with until a few years ago. The Katakombenheilgen, or catacomb saints, are a unique time capsule of bodies turned art for Counter-Reformation propaganda. They were mostly relegated to a few academic discussions until Dr Paul Koudounaris went trekking around Germany, Austria, and Switzerland photographing these long forgotten saints for his book Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, which I highly recommend.

So who is this bejewelled skeleton you ask? This is ostensibly St. Valerius. I say ostensibly because the saint’s providence is hella sketchy. See, even though the official Counter-Reformation had ended about 60 years before, the Catholic Church was still fighting to win souls back, as well as encourage the few pockets of Catholicism that remained in the Protestant stronghold of German-speaking northern Europe.  It was around that time that the Roman catacombs were opened and bodies from the early Christian period were found. While there was no evidence any of these long dead Romans were martyrs, it was assumed based on their time period they must have been, or probably would have liked to have been martyrs…you know what, they just looked a bit martyrish, ok! The conventional canonization process was circumvented, and these quickie saints were rushed off for their true higher calling, public relations.

Dozens and possibly hundreds of bodies were removed from the catacombs where artisans (mostly nuns it seems, but the artificers are primarily unnamed) cleaned, articulated the bones with wire, and wrapped each bone in near translucent gauze before then ornately decorating the body. They went to town, gemstone eyeballs, crowns; seed pearls delicately interweaved between the ribs, gold thread fillagree and lace work. Every inch is dripping with opulence. The amount of time it must have taken to create our dear saint, all by hand, must have been astounding.

St. Valerius may have been pulled from his grave in Rome, but his destination was the town of Weyarn in southern Germany, where he was the centrepiece of the church in the town’s Augustinian monastery. Think of the excitement this sleepy farming community must have experienced seeing Valerius coming down the street. The spectacle, the gossip it must have incited, but Valerius wasn’t alone, many nearby communities also received saints. The catacomb saints were sent to invigorate isolated Catholic communities in German-speaking areas and demonstrate the might and majesty of Holy Mother Church. The physical opulence was supposed to represent the spiritual glory of the saints.  I’m sure old Val got tongues wagging amount the Protestant neighbours as well, but if he helped convert anyone back to the fold, they were few and far between.

Scent the Scene

I see St. Valerius as a form of religious art. The authenticity of the body was not the focus. Indeed who this person really was is of no consequence. Nor was representing the saint accurately of great concern. The classic iconography of saints is either missing in the catacomb saints or so subtle under all the gilt it can be hard to tell St. Benedict, from Augustus, from Valerius. Valerius is a mixture of human remains and human artifice to create a symbolic representation of divinity and the promise of a heavenly afterlife for the faithful. So how would I scent this?

First, there must be Bones. I denote a bone-like mineral smell with a mixture of synthetics for dry Salt, powdery Clay, and a touch of white Ash that together gives the olfactive allusion of old bleached bone. There must be the scent of Worn Velvet and a slight metallic Nickle tang for all the metal work. With the whole composition cloaked in Dust caught in the accumulated residue of Church Incense (mainly Myrrh with a touch of Frankenscene) from centuries of thurible smoke wafting over the bones.


That’s how I smell it, but what about you? How would you scent a saint? How do you feel about human remains as a form of art? Leave your comments below and don’t forget to subscribe to the DS&LG and never miss a scene.

2 thoughts on “The Body as Art: The Jewelled Saint (Scent the Scene)

Add yours

  1. Interesting post and topic! I find the concept of relics and their uses both morbid and life-affirming at the same time. I got to visit the catacombs of a church in Trier and can still recall the smell. To your list I would add a damp earth smell , redolent of the grave from whence they came. Thank you for such unique perspectives!

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