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Tales from the crypt

St Albertus Burgrain, Germany St Albertus Burgrain, Germany Paul Koudounaris
30 Nov
Bejewelled skeletons tell how Europe’s attitudes to death changed from familiar to fearful. Geographical speaks to author Paul Koudounaris about decorating the past

‘In a side altar there was this grey-green wooden box. I said to the priest, “What’s in that box?” “It has always been there,” said the priest. “Nobody knows what’s in it.” We opened it and sure enough someone had disassembled the skeleton and hidden it away.’

Dr Paul Koudounaris is a photographer and art historian. His research topic is the culture of death. While writing about charnel houses and ossuaries, Koudounaris uncovered Europe’s long-forgotten bejewelled skeletons.

‘He’s back in the box now, but they allowed me to remove the bones and take some photographs,’ Koudounaris told Geographical, describing a discovery in a German church he was led to by historic accounts from travellers.

st konstantius rorschach switzerlandSt. Konstantius Rorschach, Switzerland. Photo: Paul Koudounaris

The skeletons are mostly found in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. ‘You have to know the religious background to understand how they were placed geographically,’ says Koudounaris. The embellished skeletons were created for the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation campaign.

‘Decorated skeletons replaced relics that had been destroyed during the Reformation,’ says Koudounaris. ‘Also, these were to reinvigorate faith in relics. The Protestants were against relics, and so the Roman Catholics were sending these skeletons north into battleground states, usually the most sumptuous relics,’ he adds.

Skeletons were displayed in churches and were extremely popular. ‘This was something the Catholics had that the Protestants did not. A tangible link to the supernatural,’ Koudounaris told us. ‘The Protestants were talking about abstract terms, but these were concrete. This was a visual example of the glory of God. This was what in store for the Catholic faithful,’ he says.

st valentin bad schussenreid germanySt. Valentin Bad Schussenreid, Germany. Photo: Paul Koudounaris

All the bones came from Rome’s catacombs. The Church believed that the ancient catacombs contained the bones of early Christian martyrs. Koudounaris says that excavators looked for circumstantial evidence that skeletons were a martyr’s bones, which were equal in value to a saint.

‘The Church just sent raw bones north,’ says Koudounaris. It would be up to the parish or monastery in question to raise money for the decoration, with the work usually carried out by nuns in a convent. Local nobles would devote clothes for the skeletons, he says. This could be a lengthy process, with some skeletons taking up to seven years to complete.

Wealthy individuals or private groups, like trade guilds, would pay for entire skeletons. Usually there was a caveat. The skeleton had to be displayed with a logo or in the guild’s private chapel, Koudounaris says.

st benedictus berg am liam munich  germanySt. Benedictus Berg am Liam, Germany. Photo: Paul Koudounaris

Decline set in for the bones in 1803 when Napoleon forced mass secularisation in Germany. ‘The French had a deal with the locals. If people didn’t resist the occupation then the locals could take a share in confiscated church properties. Monks were kicked out from monasteries and Church property sold off. The skeletons were often the first to go because they had great value,’ says Koudounaris.

Although many were destroyed, loyal parishioners and clergy often hid skeletons. When one church was turned into a stable the local priest took the skeletons scheduled to be destroyed and hid both. The skeletons passed through the family for a century before being returned to the church, says Koudounaris.

‘This is a culture that doesn’t see death as macabre, and it still exists in most of the world outside Europe and the USA,’ says Koudounaris. ‘Every year in Bolivia there is a skull festival where people take skulls from the cemetery and put them in their houses. They treat them as friends or advisers. Then they bring the skulls back in a gigantic public display,’ he says. Thousands of people come and have a massive party, he adds.

‘In Madagascar there is a tribal ritual where every year people dig up their last ancestor to die, whether one year or twenty years ago. They put the body in a white sheet and dance with it and then have a dinner with the corpse. It is about affirming kinship bonds, and reminding the dead they are still loved and cared about,’ says Koudounaris.

Koudounaris’ next work, Momento Mori, takes a look at how different cultures relate to the dead across the world. For more jewel-studded skeletons check out Heavenly Bodies.

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