Photographer and author Paul Koudounaris photographed these jeweled skeletons for his new book Heavenly Bodies.
Almost all of the skeletons photographed have never been published before.
“I wanted to pursue this project to provide a new context for them,” Koudounaris says, “and to look at them not as failed devotional items, but instead as fine objects of art.”
In the CNN interview, more questions about these skeletons were addressed.
CNN: Many of the catacomb saints have jewels as eyes and gold decorations as smiles. Was there a motivation to make them more human looking?
PK: The decoration of these skeletons was not like a typical art movement, it was not like a modern movement like cubism or impressionism, where one artist is consciously aware of what others are doing stylistically and you can trace an evolution. There was no uniform style to the decoration of the skeletons, and there were marked regional variants.
One of those involved an attempt in some areas to humanize them by molding wax over the skull to give them fake faces, then glass eyes, wigs, and so on. The idea was that by making them “more human” looking, people would be able to achieve a more intimate bond with them. In other words, to make them seem less creepy.
CNN: The skeletons might be seen as eerie or ostentatious. Did any groups object to the practice of decorating them?
PK: The Protestants of course despised these garish skeletons and thought them to be absurd. For the Protestants, these skeletons were a kind of worst-case-scenario example of the superstition that was rampant in Catholic Europe. One of the questions I often get asked, however, is if there was ever any evidence of objections on the Catholic side to lavishing obviously large amounts of money on these skeletons. The answer, perhaps surprising from a modern perspective, is no. In fact, quite the opposite. Locals typically welcomed these skeletons unquestioningly and with open arms.