Heavenly Bodies: A Review

Heavenly Bodies by Paul KoudounarisHeavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs
Paul Koudoumaris

My Review: 5 of 5 stars

From the publisher, Thames & Hudson:

“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.

The book includes arresting images of more than seventy spectacular jeweled skeletons and the fascinating stories of dozens more, accompanied by rare archive material. 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.”

More than a photography book, Heavenly Bodies is a beautifully haunting history of the catacomb saints taken from Rome by the Catholic Church centuries ago. Koudoumaris does a fantastic job of weaving the tale of the discovery of the skeletons, their issue to the towns that revered them, and the eventual, horrific downfall of their esteem. I found the narrative extremely easy to digest, and fascinating on so many levels.

Decidedly Gothic in style and feeling, the catacomb saints have been seen as holy relics, and as disgusting displays of hypocrisy. Wisely refusing to engage in a theological debate, Koudoumaris outlines in sympathy the “life” and fate of these exquisitely decorated skeletons.

Originally numbering in the hundreds of thousands, these days only a handful of the catacomb saints remain, having been put away in storage or caskets, destroyed, or vandalised. Many have passed out of history all together.

Though macabre, the photography was absolutely gorgeous, and the high-quality paper and print of the book made it an absolute pleasure to look through and observe. Something deeply unsettling reaches out through the pictures, as if they are alive in their intimate, reticulated poses, with Koudoumaris’s camera portraying the melancholy and sadness in the silence of their altars. Truly one of the best photography books I have seen in a long while, about a subject exceedingly interesting and unique.

Though I wish I could show you every photo, I instead insist you go out and get a copy, because it deserves a slot on your bookshelf. While you’re waiting for it to be delivered, you can check out this small Pinterest board:

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