Jawbones and Jewels

Now for a little history: Go here for a gallery and fascinating article by Christopher Howse about Germany’s jewel encrusted relics of saints.

It’s partly a question of taste. When Anna Eliza Bray was collecting materials for The Mountains and Lakes of Switzerland (1841) she was proudly shown the ornamented skeleton of St Alexander at Freiburg. ‘Never before had we witnessed any sight so disgusting,’ she recalled. ‘I involuntarily started in horror.’ Any idea of venerating human remains was bad enough for a properly brought-up Anglican, but the mouldering bones bedecked with jewels and embroidered with gold proved viscerally repulsive.

This must be a common reaction to the photographs in a new book, Heavenly Bodies. Skeletons from Roman catacombs, mistaken for the remains of martyrs, were imported by the dozen for churches in Switzerland, Bavaria and Austria, mostly in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were articulated in suitable poses (like squirrels in a Victorian taxidermy tableau), clad in gems and displayed in glazed niches for popular devotion. At first they seem deliberately grotesque, a memento mori. But the author, Paul Koudounaris, insists that on the contrary, the intention was to give them the highest dignity by ornamenting them with gems mentioned in the Book of Revelation’s description of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Go here for the full article.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker