When author Paul Koudounaris began uncovering Roman skeletons that had been lost for generations, their elaborate outfits would blow his mind.
It’s the 16th century, and Catholicism is under fire. As revolutions across Europe strip churches of their religious icons, the Vatican needs to think of something fast.
They find their inspiration within the ancient catacombs sprawled beneath the city of Rome. Thousands of skeletons are exhumed and sent as far afield as Germany and Austria to live out the rest of their days as relics.
Despite having little knowledge of the skeletons’ origins, the Vatican successfully passed them off as the remains of early Christian saints. For hundreds of years, they were revered.
As time passed, however, people began to doubt the authenticity of the saintly remains. One by one, the skeletons were destroyed or put under lock and key, an embarrassing secret that the Catholic Church tried to hide away.
Things may well have remained that way forever if it were not for the determination of one man. Paul Koudounaris, a photographer and author from Los Angeles, California, was working on another book when he stumbled across the story of the skeletons, dubbed the “catacomb saints.”
An expert in the sacred uses of human remains, Koudounaris was doing research in Germany in 2008 when he was approached by a man offering to show him something spectacular. The man led Koudounaris to a church hidden away in the woods, where the incredible discovery was made.
Indeed, the skeleton, dressed in the finest robes, was boarded up in a side aisle of a neglected and dilapidated church. Its eyes were great orbs of red glass, and in its bony hand it held a glass vial.
Then, in another German church, Koudounaris found two more skeletons decked out in elaborate finery. Again, they were clothed in robes, and their mouths sparkled with gold.
Koudounaris realized that what he had discovered was more than a local curiosity. “As I discovered more about them, I had this feeling that it was my duty to tell their fascinating story,” Koudounaris said in a 2013 statement.
And, in fact, the story of the catacomb saints began in 1578, when workers in Rome discovered chambers full of skeletons beneath the city. At the time, the saints were assumed to date from the early days of Christianity, so the Catholic Church was quick to claim them as early Christian martyrs, and to reap the rewards of such a well-timed discovery.
What’s more, the Protestant Reformation had been raging across northern Europe for decades, and many holy relics had been destroyed. In these skeletons, then, the Vatican saw an opportunity to replenish the churches of Germany, Austria and Switzerland with a whole new stock of treasures.
The idea was a popular one, and the previously insignificant skeletons became hot property. Rich families acquired them as status symbols for their private chapels, while churches often bribed officials and paid hefty sums to have the relics delivered.
Of course, such valuable relics couldn’t be presented as the dusty, crumbling skeletons that had been pulled from underneath the streets of Rome. When they arrived at their destination, the bones underwent lengthy makeovers that sometimes lasted years.
Certainly, the nuns and monks charged with decorating the relics lavished spectacular amounts of attention upon them. The skeletons, for example, were covered in gold and precious stones, their decayed faces fleshed out with wax and fabric. Furthermore, the donated clothes of local nobility were used to give the skeletons a refined air.
The beautified skeletons went on display in chapels and churches across Europe, where they were revered for hundreds of years. Then, in the late 18th century, things changed. The Enlightenment was dawning, and the Austrian Emperor Joseph II ordered the removal of relics whose authenticity couldn’t be proven.
The townspeople of rural Europe could only watch in horror as their beloved saints were hauled off, stripped of their jewels and locked away for good. But although many of the skeletons were lost forever, Koudounaris’ mission has ensured that these fascinating relics will never be forgotten.
His quest to uncover what remained of the catacomb saints was not an easy one, though. Trawling through ancient archives and records, he attempted to track down the final resting places of these jewel-encrusted skeletons.
Slowly, Koudounaris’ hard work began to pay off. He discovered one saint tucked away in a storage unit in a Swiss parking garage. Another was found hidden in a box within the altar of an old church, likely forgotten for at least 100 years.
And Koudounaris has so far uncovered dozens of the skeletons. “I’m positive there are some out there that are yet to be discovered,” he has said.
For Koudounaris, the fact that the individual catacomb saints might well have been nothing more than everyday Romans does little to diminish their value. “The question of who the catacomb saints were in life becomes secondary to the achievement of creating them,” he told Smithsonian.com. “That’s something I want to celebrate.”