In 1578, the Roman catacombs near Via Salaria were discovered by curious vineyard workers and later fully uncovered by archeologists, revealing a vast unearthly spectacle. Between 500,000 and 750,000 skeletons gaped ghostly up at them, the ancient remains of people believed to have lived in the centuries shortly after the time of Christ – during which thousands were killed, many of whom were considered to be martyrs of the faith. Encrusted with gold and jewels and adorned in fine fabrics, many of the skeletons went on display in churches to convey the treasures that await devout followers.
Catholic churches worldwide were notified and became instantly intrigued with the discovery, determined for their chapels to have a martyr’s skeleton (or several) and willing to pay top dollar for the delivery. A renewed surge of interest in Catholicism could be anticipated with the purchase and distribution of the faithful dead, signaling a substantial recovery from an undermining of the religion and destruction of their treasured relics by Protestants in recent decades.
According to Paul Koudounaris, author of Heavenly Bodies, a comprehensive report on the ancient catacomb saints, explained that procuring such a skeleton for one’s church in certain areas of the globe, particularly hard-hit German regions, would make a strong statement of faith as well as an expression of admirable wealth. Some well-to-do citizens sought to add them to their own private home collections, while other community venues reached out to the Vatican to order their martyrs, too. Once obtained, they would be displayed prominently and believed to protect the congregation or family/community group as a saint. When full skeletons could not be purchased, a single piece, like a ribcage or skull, would often suffice.
Dr. Paul Koudounaris ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
How did they know which skeletons were martyrs?
Pagans and Jews were also buried alongside the Christians in the catacomb, however, leaving the church with some ascertaining to do. One determining feature appeared to be the engraving of a letter ‘M’ near the corpse. While skeptics have argued that this ‘M’ carving could be indicative of other things, such as the popular ancient Roman name “Marcus”, church authorities remained convinced it meant ‘martyr’. In addition, the church believed martyred skeletons could be identified by the ethereal golden glow they emitted, as well as a lovely perfumed aroma, so established psychics were recruited to roam through the mass grave selecting the real martyrs from the among their common neighbors.
Overlooking a possibility that the aroma could be due to another ancient Roman custom of leaving containers of perfume on graves, the church also firmly believed the dried sediment extracted from vessels found aside the remains once held the corpse’s own blood – not perfume. Upon determining a skeleton belonged to a martyr, the church Vatican then would later decide who it was and officially give them the title.
From the Gallery of 20th Century Martyrs at Westminster Abbey—l. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
It was no small doing to have such a martyred saint situated in your church at the time. Fittingly, historic church baptismal records would often show numerous babies named after their martyr for many years following the arrival of the ghoulish decor, an honor suitable for the saint actively watching over them, protecting them from harm or other beneficial acts. Some churches even kept logs in “miracle books” which chronicled the positive events or strokes of good fortune believed to have been brought on by their regional patron saint.
Enough sparkle and shine to reflect the splendor of a martyr’s afterlife
The process of beautifying each skeleton was usually entrusted to convents, or occasionally monasteries. Up to three years’ worth of work ensued, including the frequent initial wrapping of the corpse with a specially-woven gauze fabric made by the nuns. This fabric was fine and sheer, yet prevented dust accumulation and helped hold the bones together throughout the decorating process. Some martyrs’ skulls were given wax faces, sometimes even shaped into smiles or other facial expressions. After the wrapping and/or waxing came the jewels, gems, gold and lavish garments, as well as the careful manipulation of the skeleton into lifelike positions. Different nuns or groups of nuns/monks began to have their own recognizably different styles of martyr-decorating, although usually they performed their skills anonymously.
Skeleton covered in Jewels. ( historiesofthingstocome.blogspot.com)
Discredited and destroyed
As the 18th century neared its close, many political leaders took up a more modern perspective and viewed anything considered ‘superstitious’ in a negative light. Those like Austrian Emperor Joseph II were of a mind to gather and destroy such relics in hopes of reducing the appearance of “vulgarity” or “barbarity” in their constituent communities.
Community members, however, viewed this change very differently and were often distraught at the removal of the saints they had admired for several generations. Nonetheless, they were dismantled for their jewels and removed, placed into storage or destroyed regardless of the sorrowful congregations.
Austrian Emperor Joseph II by Anton von Maron . ( Public Domain )
Some remained intact
Some of the beloved saints’ skeletons survived the destructive century’s end, though, and can be seen to this day, with the largest display of ten full skeletons standing in Waldsassen Basilica of Waldsassen, Bavaria.
A glass case protects the corpse of the “Martyr Candidus” at the Irsee Abbey, Bavaria. ( Public Domain )
Others are scattered and on exhibit in places like St. Peter’s Church of Munich and other random garages and church basements waiting to be found and restored.
A reliquary in St. Peter’s Church, Munich. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )
Artistry and unequivocal identification
According to Koudounaris, the outstanding and painstaking craftsmanship performed by the nuns/monks, as well as the process associated with the artistry of the catacomb saints (i.e. there was no training involved), makes it worthy of its own distinct art subcategory. From the perspective of an art historian, Koudounaris believes that “the question of who the catacomb saints were in life becomes secondary to the achievement of creating them.
A relic from the Holy Catacombs of Pancratius. Image taken at an exhibition at the Historical Museum St. Gallen in Wil, Switzerland. ( CC BY 2.5 )
They’re the finest pieces of art ever created in human bone.” Still, one does wonder who they may have actually been in life centuries ago, and how they would have felt about their amazing rise and fall after death in their beautifully-bejeweled skeleton form.