Let’s talk about death.

Humans have done lots of odd things to human remains.  The Catholic church in the Middle Ages did some spectacularly morbid things with the skeletons of the diseased, creating whole death cults, bizarre works of art, and ghoulish business practices.

In the late Middle Ages, the veneration of relics was popular with the laity.  Relics were pieces of dead saints.  Most of them were fake, but at the time people actually believed that the larger churches had the earlobe of John the Baptist, or the finger bone of Saint Jerome, or whatever grisly little body part the church could display on holy days.  Churches that had relics, especially ones thought important like those of the Apostles or the major saints, drew crowds from the whole region.  People would make pilgrimages to see these relics.  And crowds meant money from religious tourists.  Getting a relic could increase donations to the church, and the local inns, pubs, and other businesses would profit from the incoming visitors.

Every church wanted a relic.  And in the later years of the medieval period, getting a relic became very, very easy.

Someone discovered a series of catacombs outside of Rome.  The bodies were thought to be early Christians.  Instant saints!  Literally.  Priests would bless the skeletal remains as they were brought out of the tombs, and assign them names.  The names would be those of famous saints, but everyone knew they weren’t the true famous saint.  The names were placeholders for these anonymous spiritual ancestors.  So there would be dozens of “Saint Bartholomews” or “Saint Ambroses”.

Most of the “catacomb saints” went to churches in the German-speaking Catholic areas, like Bavaria.  A church would gather donations from wealthy patrons, and the saint would be imported from Rome.  The bones would be dressed up, covered in jewels and fine metalwork, and then would take their place in the church to be displayed for the populace, whose appreciation would then fill the church’s coffers.

The Protestants found this all rather appalling.  Part of the reason for the catacomb saints was to recapture the hearts of Catholics, so that they wouldn’t be lost to the Protestant heretics.  After the Enlightenment, most of the saints and other relics were tucked away in storage rooms or behind closed partitions where they could no longer embarrass newly-rational churchgoers.

Paul Koudounaris traveled Europe, taking gorgeous pictures of the skeletons still in situ.  The resulting book is Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs.  It’s stunning, and I recommend it.

I just finished Koudounaris’ second book, The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses.  (And looking up the links to these two on GoodReads showed me that he has a third book out, Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us, which I will be requesting from the library as soon as I finish this post.)  While I’m trying to focus on the content of a book and not necessarily reviewing it, I do have to say that The Empire of Death is poorly designed.  Each page of text is at least 25% whitespace, and the font is tiny, maybe 8pts.  It’s hard to read, especially when it’s an oversized hardcover.  If they’d gone with more reasonable page margins, I wouldn’t have to read it under a very bright light.  And the pages with tiny black text on a red background are so painful to read that I didn’t even bother on most of them.  Grrr.  I hate it when readability is sacrificed in the name of style.

But anyway.  Charnel houses were created by the Christian churches (both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) for several reasons.  Early and medieval Christians believed that death was essentially sleep, a very long nap until Judgment Day came around.  The body had to stay in physical form in order for its eventual resurrection, and be buried in consecrated ground.  Said ground could only hold so many remains, and so the charnels were born.  They were above-ground storage for the bones of the faithful.  Some of the biggest held upwards of 15,000 skeletons.  Some charnels charged money for the deceased remains to be placed in them, and more money for the bones’ upkeep.  Families would be stuck paying for their loved ones’ bones in perpetuity.  Most of them didn’t, and were kept up by religious donations.

The way charnels kept their bones varied widely.  In some, bones were just piled haphazardly and left alone.  In others, the bones were used to create stunning works of art.  I don’t feel I can reproduce photos from the book here, since this isn’t really a book review and I don’t want to plagiarize, but I’ll give you some names of my favorite charnel houses, and you can do a Google image search.  I’m sure you’ll find some great pictures.

  • My favorite, with chandeliers and and wall sconces made of bones, is the Sedlec Ossuary in Sedlec, Czech Republic.  It’s probably the most famous one, next to the Paris Catacombs.  Horror movies have been filmed in Sedlec.  It’s gorgeous.
  • If you want something infinitely creepier, go with the Crypt of the Monastery of Santa Maria della Pace in Palermo, Sicily.  It was created by the Capuchin monks, whose treatment of remains was even more morbid than the norm.  They mummified dead monks, dressed them, and mounted them on the walls.  The crypt looks like something from a horror movie.  It’s disturbing but weirdly beautiful.
  • The Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos) of the Parish Church of Nossa Senhora da Expectacao in Campo Maior, Portugal has some impressive bone architecture.
  • The ossuary of the Chapel of St. Michael (St. Katharinen) in Oppenheim, Germany is that country’s largest and holds around 20,000 people.  It’s one of the “piles of bones” style charnels.

Random fact: the single most gothic concert in the history of ever (in my opinion) was held in 1897 in the Rotonde des Tibias of the Paris Catacombs.  A 45-member orchestra played Chopin’s Funeral March, the Dance of Death by Saint-Saen (the composer of the ubiquitous Danse Macabre, among other creepy music), and the “Funeral March” from Beethoven’s Eroica.  I wish I could have been there.  I bet it was beautiful.

Many charnels were buried or torn down after the Enlightment.  But there are still some gorgeous examples out there.  Koudounaris’ work is fantastic.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go reserve Memento Mori


Categories: History

1 Comment

EE · February 28, 2017 at 6:54 am

That sounds like an amazing concert. I also wish I could have been there.

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