In 1578, the remains of thousands of people thought to be Christian martyrs were discovered deep underground in Rome.
They came to be known as the catacomb saints, and their bones were dispatched to Catholic churches throughout Europe. Paul Koudounaris had the rare chance to spend time with these spectacular skeletons. The result of his travels is his new photo book, "Heavenly Bodies."
As part of our series, Picture This, Koudounaris joins us in studio to talk about his photographs of the catacomb saints.
On the identities of these jewel-encrusted skeletons:
"We really don't know. When they rediscovered the Roman catacombs they thought these bodies must all date to old Roman times and they figured these must be early Christian martyrs, but in fact, Romans were buried down in those catacombs and Jews were as well…They could very well have been sending skeletons of shoe salesman to Christian churches and having people worship them."
On whether they were actually saints:
"They were never canonized in the traditional sense. Remember that they didn't know who these people were, I even found an account at one point in time where they sent a group of psychics down into the Roman catacombs to go into a trance and start pointing at skeletons. Oftentimes they would replicate saints that already existed and a lot of times they didn't have any identities for these bodies, so they would just make up names for them. They would re-baptize these bodies and name them after virtues. I found one in Switzerland named Saint Anonymous, because they just ran out of inspiration. "
On why they were sent to churches in other countries:
"They wanted to wow people with the resurgence of the Catholic Church. They sent them to churches in places like Germany, Switzerland and Austria, which had battleground states with the Protestants. A lot of these parishes had left the Catholic Church and now in the early 17th Century, they were drawing them back in.
"It was a chance to send something northward that would be of such incredible presence that people would walk into this church and be awed by this fully life-size skeleton covered in jewels. It just represented an earthly manifestation of divine glory. This is the glory that God has reserved for people who have sacrificed on behalf of the Catholic faith. It was a kind of visual propaganda to tell people that we are strong, and we are back and we are the true way for the faithful."
On what they represented:
"On a popular level, they became patrons of all kinds of bizarre things...One of these in Switzerland, he became the Patron Saint of Urinary Disorders, because when he was being translated into the church, a woman who had urinary incontinence prayed to him and she claims she had been cured. So people from then on who had urinary disorders would come to this town in Switzerland and stand in front of this jeweled skeleton and pray that he would remove their urinary disorders."
On the most ornate of the skeletons, St. Albertus:
"He's the one I open the book with, because he was one of the few where I was able to find some personal information, not about him, but the woman who decorated him, who was a known local nun. He is one of the most ornate I've ever found. You can't even see the ribs on his ribcage because they're so covered in jewels. You can see most of the skull is also covered in jewels and it goes all the way down to his legs.
"Albertus was proclaimed as this visual manifestation of God's glory to those who serve the faith. he was the embodiment of what they call the heavenly Jerusalem. This idea that those who serve the faith well would be invited into this gold and glittering castle that was represented by this skeleton among us."
Paul Koudounaris at Les Noces du Figaro (free event)
618 S Broadway, Los Angeles, CA, 90014 on Sept. 29, noon
Paul Koudounaris at Glendale Public Library (free event)
222 E. Harvard, Glendale, 91205 on Oct. 30, 7 pm
Paul Koudounaris at La Luz de Jesus
4633 Hollywood Blvd. 90027 on Nov. 1, 8 pm