Contemporary burial practices suck. They put a suit or dress on you, throw you in a box, and stick you in the ground, doomed to an eternity of looking boring. It wasn't always like that, and art history scholar Dr. Paul Koudounaris's photos of...
Saint Valerius, still stylish after all these years.
Contemporary burial practices suck. They put a suit or dress on you, throw you in a box, and stick you in the ground, doomed to an eternity of looking boring. It wasn't always like that, and art history scholar Dr. Paul Koudounaris's photos of skeletons covered in bling prove it. You might remember some of his photos from 2011’s The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. Now, Koudounaris has a follow-up book called Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, which also features bedazzled dead people. But according to the author, that's where the similarities end. "They are very different—almost diametric—projects," he says. "Because it deals with identity, Heavenly Bodies is in effect much more intimate."
Koudounaris started documenting skeletons in earnest less than five years ago while photographing East German charnel houses, aka vaults full of dead bodies. "These skeletons became my life," he says. "I felt like it was some kind of divine dictate that I was supposed to tell this story."
While there had been articles about the skeletons in academic journals (mostly in Germany, where many of the bones are located), as well as a few doctoral dissertations, nobody had ever treated them as works of art. "They approached them as historical objects or devotional objects, but that, I think, is missing the point," Koudounaris says. "To a modern audience that's going to appreciate them, it's because they're incredible works of art, and that's the context I wanted to create for them."
But Koudounaris admits there's more to it than pretty poses and shiny jewelry. "They became, almost in an unhealthy way, personalities to me," he says. "They became like people." While taking pictures, he found himself talking to his subjects, complimenting and encouraging the skeletons like a photographer would a fashion model. He wanted to capture what he was feeling from the skeletons—be it pride, dignity, or abandonment—so that the photographs respect each skeleton's psychological state.
Koudounaris has encountered about 200 skeletons in his life, many of them located in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, where elaborately decorating dead people became something of a phenomenon during the Counter-Reformation in the mid-16th century. When asked what the going rate for a sparkly old body is, he says they’re priceless. Determining their cost doesn't just mean figuring out the value of the real jewels, but also the fake ones, which took a lot more time and resources to make in the olden days than they do now. "The objective here was the presentation," says Koudounaris. "It wasn't about saving money."
While Empire of Death is a general study of nameless dead people, Heavenly Bodies investigates the historic attempts to prescribe posthumous identities to skeletons, specifically those believed to be martyrs. Koudounaris's last, as-yet-unpublished book in his series investigates the societal experience of the living and the dead and their interaction with one another. He wants to find places where this day-to-day interaction with the dead still happens, and where the discrimination between the living and dead doesn't exist. In the past, the dead would assist the living by virtue of dying, and that's a place Koudounaris believes we should revisit. "It's a natural desire to connect to something that's passed on," he says. "The thing about the dead is, ultimately, whatever you believe spiritually—if you believe they live on in physical form, spiritual form, if you believe in Heaven or not—they do live on within us. There is that part, that psychology of us, that does preserve them."
Koudounaris has given us a series of images from both his book and his upcoming month-long gallery show at LA's La Luz de Jesus gallery, many of which have not been featured elsewhere, along with some of the bizarre stories, weird beliefs, and minor miracles that he came across while studying them.
St. Felix once summoned a wind to blow a fire away from his town market, so his shrine at the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Friedenweiler, Germany became the focus of a popular pilgrimage. According to Koudounaris, the saint's odd association with wind also supposedly gave St. Felix the power to ward off farts.
Speaking of funky smells, at the monastic church in Irsee, Germany, St. Canditus (along with St. Faustus) was believed to be able to remove odors from foul-smelling objects. Koudounaris says it's impossible to figure out the myth’s genesis, but in the same church there was apparently another relic that smelled like ass, so perhaps the smell vanished around the same time the dead saints arrived and they've been credited with the power to remove bad odors ever since.
The remains of St. Pancratius first came to the church of St. Nicholas in Wil, Switzerland in 1672, when an extended celebration drew a crowd of 5000 people and emptied local villages. Koudounaris says that a woman immediately sought the dead saint's help because her marriage was in trouble due to major bladder issues after having a baby. She promised to recite daily Ava Marias if St. Pancratius would help her, and soon after she was healed. When word spread people from far and wide flocked to St. Pancratius because they thought he cured urinary incontinence. He was also believed to relieve foot pain.
Conrad II at St. Michael in Mondsee, Austria was a local prior who was assassinated in 1145 AD. He's not actually a saint, but because he died a martyr's death he was subsequently raised to quasi-sainthood. Koudounaris says, "Supposedly, if you were worried about being assassinated and prayed to him, he would protect you."
St. Leontius was allegedly a Roman noble who was cooked on a grill and beheaded under the emperor Diocletian. Now at the monastic church of Muri, Switzerland, his remains were believed to be able to bring children back from the dead, but only for a few minutes. That was long enough for the babies to be baptized, enabling them to officially enter the pearly gates of Heaven.
St. Albertus at the church of Saint George in Burgrain, Germany was believed to have the ability to sterilize animals. Koudounaris isn't sure where the belief originated, "But apparently, if you held a domestic animal by the hind legs and spread his legs, then said a prayer and invoked Albertus, the animal would be sterile."
After it first arrived at a parish church of Bürglen, Germany back in 1682, the skeleton of St. Maximus began to secrete a weird, yellow, sweet-smelling liquid. Soon, villagers started to see a big white cat who liked to hide in the altar along with the saint's bones. It also visited homes of poor people, so whenever the cat showed up, people believed they'd get some unexpected money.
Now resting at the church of St. Peter in Munich, the bejeweled remains of St. Munditia became a figure of devotion for poor textile workers because she'd supposedly help spinsters find husbands. After interest in her waned, she was boarded up and put in storage for decades.
St. Faustine was also lost to posterity. Koudounaris found her in a rented storage unit in a parking garage in Porrentruy, Switzerland. She was buried under a pile of broken-down church furniture.
When an Anglican priest first encountered the decorated remains of St. Deodatus in Moosburg, Germany back in the mid-19th century, he labeled them "a truly hideous sight." The church evidently agreed, because St. Deodatus disappeared for a long, long time. "See that box on the table behind him? That's where I discovered him," says Koudounaris. "He had been hidden in there for maybe 200 years."
More fun with dead people: