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Heavenly Bodies

Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs

Paul Koudounaris


Following the success of The Empire of Death, which has attracted a global cult following, Heavenly Bodies brings the 'catacomb saints' out of the darkness for the first time

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In 1578 a labyrinth of underground burials was discovered in Rome that contained the remains of thousands of individuals assumed to be early Christian martyrs. The bones were disinterred and sent to many Catholic churches and religious houses in German-speaking Europe to replace holy relics that had been destroyed during the Protestant Reformation.

Reassembled by skilled artisans, encrusted with gold and jewels and richly dressed in fantastic costumes, the skeletons were displayed in elaborate public shrines as reminders of the spiritual treasures that awaited the faithful after death. For nearly three centuries these ‘Heavenly Bodies’ were venerated as miracle-workers and protectors of their communities until doubts about their authenticity surfaced in the modern era. They then became a source of embarrassment for the Church and most were destroyed or hidden away.

Critically acclaimed author and photographer Paul Koudounaris brings the catacomb saints out of the darkness with this astonishing volume including arresting images of more than seventy spectacular jeweled skeletons and the fascinating stories of dozens more. This is the first time that some of these incredible relics – both intriguing historical artifacts and masterpieces of artistic craftsmanship in their own right – have appeared in a publication, with Koudounaris gaining unprecedented access to photograph in some of the most secretive religious establishments in Europe.

Meticulously researched and beautifully written, this is a tour de force of original cultural history with deepest resonances for a modern audience fascinated by visual representations of death.

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'The grinning, bejewelled catacomb saints who stare our from the pages of Koudounaris challenge us to engage in deeper exercises, spiritual and intellectual; to recreate lost forms of devotional life; to understand how they inspired and deformed the study of the Christian past; and to imagine what it felt like to believe that the gauze-wrapped skeleton in your church was a time lord, whose sight and touch could help to save your soul'
The London Review of Books

'It’s utterly spectacular, hugely interesting and almost unbelievable'
All About History

'Bling from the edges of eternity'
Annie Lennox

'Suitable for goths, art historians and everyone in between … Incredible relics'
Book Depository

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Product Information

Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 24.0 x 17.0 cm

Extent: 192 pp

Illustrations: 105

Publication date: 2 September 2013

ISBN: 9780500251959

Contents List

Introduction: Blessed Bones • 1. Holy Bodies: Relics and the Roman Catacombs • 2. The Church Triumphant: Constructing the Catacomb Saints • 3. Communal Property: Jeweled Skeletons and Civic Identity 4. The Mighty Will Fall: The End of the Reign of the Catacomb Saints Notes, Acknowledgments, List of Sites, Index

About the Author

Paul Koudounaris has a doctorate in Art History from the University of California and has written widely on European ossuaries and charnel houses for both academic and popular journals.

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