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Heavenly Bodies
September 7, 2013 1:26 AM   Subscribe

A relic hunter dubbed 'Indiana Bones' has lifted the lid on a macabre collection of 400-year-old jewel-encrusted skeletons unearthed in churches across Europe.
posted by empath (64 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's great. Lucky guys. St Benedictus looks amazingly like C3PO and St Friedrich strikes a pose that makes him as hot as a skeleton can get. Thank you, this is amazing.
posted by nicolin at 1:32 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Most of this ornamentation would be pretty cool and beautiful, but once you give a skull eyeballs you're just asking for creepy.
posted by edeezy at 1:41 AM on September 7, 2013 [11 favorites]


Proof that you can't take it with you, after all.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:48 AM on September 7, 2013


Indiana Bones?

And the Temple of Poon?
posted by phaedon at 1:56 AM on September 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


Paul Koudounaris' website.

The page on ossuaries is nightmare fodder.
posted by chavenet at 2:05 AM on September 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


And now to bed, probably to dream of jeweled skeletons. Eyes, there's the rub.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:56 AM on September 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


Indiana Bones, dubbed so by the Daily Mail I suspect.
posted by Mario Speedwagon at 3:19 AM on September 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


Looking at these skeletons feels so intimate. I don't know if it is the gems or what, but I feel like I am spying on the most private parts of a human body. Man, I am definitely being cremated.

Oh, and that ossuaries page...yeah, I somehow thought an ossuary was a large flightless bird and was really excited to check it out. Turns out that I was wrong and my punishment will be nightmares for the next six or seven years.
posted by Literaryhero at 3:24 AM on September 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


It appears that one function of religion is to concentrate and remove wealth from society. Artificial scarcity.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:45 AM on September 7, 2013 [6 favorites]


My girlfriend bought me his book The Empire of Death for my birthday. Best gift ever. So amazing. Big and heavy, full of beautiful photography on a fascinating subject with fantastic analysis and histories of the changing views of Death that the West and Christianity have had over the last few centuries. Previously on Metafilter too.
posted by molecicco at 4:10 AM on September 7, 2013 [6 favorites]


Bunch of gem-encrusted skeletons wearing ceremonial robes found in cult catacombs and secret crypts, and not one of them is a lich laying in wait for the PCs? Man, that DM is asleep at the wheel.
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:58 AM on September 7, 2013 [38 favorites]


Here's another gallery of them at The Telegraph
posted by Flitcraft at 5:00 AM on September 7, 2013


and not one of them is a lich laying in wait for the PCs?

Ladies and gentlemen, the plot of Ghostbusters 3.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:13 AM on September 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


Jeez, sometimes I am mortally embarrassed for the religion I was raised in. Seriously, Catholic church?
posted by LN at 5:20 AM on September 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


That was way more disturbing that I had expected it to be. Ugh. Did the, uh, monks/nuns/whatever waited for all that remains to be bones, or did they grab a spoon and got to work cleaning all the rest of the corpse bits after it was no longer, ah, squishy but dry?
posted by Iosephus at 5:30 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


That one skeleton with its head on one hand, stretched out? Fhat one dead guy looks like he's about to break into song. Or as if it's about to say, 'come on, lie down with me sweetie, we'll have a drink and watch Downton Abbey together"
posted by angrycat at 6:02 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, I've wanted a green burial for a while now, but this may have changed my mind. That was awesome.
posted by oddman at 6:11 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


as if it's about to say, 'come on, lie down with me sweetie, we'll have a drink and watch Downton Abbey together"

Or even, "Bedazzle me like one of your French skeletons"
posted by chambers at 6:14 AM on September 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


If I recall correctly, standard practice was to bury them until all the flesh rotted away, them they would be bedazzled/moved to a crypt/used to decorate the church.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 6:23 AM on September 7, 2013


Did the, uh, monks/nuns/whatever waited for all that remains to be bones, or did they grab a spoon and got to work cleaning all the rest of the corpse bits after it was no longer, ah, squishy but dry?

From the article:
Thousands of skeletons were dug up from Roman catacombs in the 16th century and installed in towns around Germany, Austria and Switzerland on the orders of the Vatican.
So presumably, the bones were one millenium and spare change old by then, time enough to be mummified.

As someone from a traditionally Catholic country, I'm not even surprised about this, we've got truckloads of relicaries full of body parts in churches, and other assorted weird stuff like exvotos (figures made of wax or tin of body parts allegedly healed by a saint) or statues of Christ with real clothes and human hair.
posted by sukeban at 6:23 AM on September 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Did the, uh, monks/nuns/whatever waited for all that remains to be bones, or did they grab a spoon and got to work cleaning all the rest of the corpse bits after it was no longer, ah, squishy but dry?

The article says the skeletons were taken from the rediscovered catacombs, so they would have been 1000 years old or more before the monks and nuns started to adorn them.
posted by Azara at 6:23 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ah, I see! I misread that then, was thinking theytook corpses out to bling them after clean up. Gross factor down by several degrees then, good. But yes, as already mentioned... Please don't put eyes on them, jewelly or not. Way too creepy.
posted by Iosephus at 6:34 AM on September 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


LiteraryHero, I think that's a cassowary.

My take on this is that, while it's an interesting article, all the "bedazzling" could probably feed thousands of starving children instead of providing idolatry to the masses.
posted by xenophile at 6:39 AM on September 7, 2013


Thanks for the fantastic. Now I want Henry Selick to arrange a philosophical discussion between them.
posted by effluvia at 6:40 AM on September 7, 2013


It seems to me that if you grow up Christian (and I did) you almost inevitably, if tacitly, come to regard it as the norm. It's the sort of base-line, ordinary religion. The non-weird one. Even after I'd rejected it, and come to think it was crazy, it never really struck me as bizarre... Those other ones, with their bird-headed gods and their elephant-headed gods and their their multi-armed gods and their demons and demi-gods and whatnot...those are bizarre. Christianity, though I thought it was false, was just kinda meh. Boring, even.

Until, that is, one of my colleagues was describing how it looks to, say, Buddhists who encounter it for the first time. This is a religion that's all about how you guys killed your god???? [murdered, I should say.] WTF????? And you have these icons of said god hanging dying from a horrific torture device, covered in blood? AND YOU PRETEND TO EAT HIS BODY AND DRINK HIS BLOOD????? What kinda freaky-ass voodoo crazy is this?

Anyway, that's when I started to recognize how genuinely bizarre Christianity really is. (And will be even if it somehow turns out to be true... I don't mean for this to be some atheist screed...)

My point is: seeing these freaking skeletons confirms my belief in Christianity's basic weirdness... Well, Catholics, mostly... Though the killing your god thing is pretty huge...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 6:52 AM on September 7, 2013 [23 favorites]


It really gets to the heart of our basic sickness as a species, doesn't it? Then and now, we strongly prefer literally-and-metaphorically decorating the corpses of the powerful and connected over feeding and sheltering the living brains and bodies of the weak and outcast.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:34 AM on September 7, 2013 [6 favorites]


The "starving children" critique is probably the least illuminating one to be made, because it's true ofso much art. Do you like sculpture or the Game of Thrones TV series or Pacific Rim? You may as well be personally sledge-hammering malnourished infant skulls.

Stuff like this is a nice reminder that our familiar Western culture is actually, as FoF says, just as alien and weird as anything else out there.

Wouldn't it be great if the British Museum looted a few of these and put them on display? Preferably from holy sites within English borders?
posted by kavasa at 7:48 AM on September 7, 2013 [11 favorites]


Wow, humans, you are crazy.

St Valentin in Bad Schussenreid
Swear I read that as St Valentin the Bad. That would have been an interesting saint.

That white gauze covering some of the bones sure looks fresh. I wonder who's been renewing it?
posted by glasseyes at 7:54 AM on September 7, 2013


Odd as that is, it's not even as odd as the fact that the friends of St. Catherine of Siena took the head off her newly-dead body to smuggle it back home. Where it remains on show.
posted by glasseyes at 7:59 AM on September 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mistaken for the remains of early Christian martyrs, the morbid relics, known as the Catacomb Saints, became shrines reminding of the spiritual treasures of the afterlife.

Old skeletons cleared out of valuable graves and sold as relics to replace relics destroyed by the Protestants, dressed up in gold and jewels to remind everyone about the spiritual treasures in Heaven. Holy shit, Jesus H. Christ on a cracker, the damned and layered irony is just too much.
posted by carsonb at 8:22 AM on September 7, 2013 [6 favorites]


I knew that most relics were of unknown provenance and couldn't be proved to be from the bodies of the saints they were supposed to belong to, but the idea of grabbing random long-dead skeletons from the catacombs and making saints of them was still a little cynical for me.

Also, the decorative style involved really made me think of some of the Dia de los Muertos decorations I've seen in various parts of Texas. I guess the period at which the colonial Spanish artistic traditions started to branch off from the European traditions is about right for that.
posted by immlass at 8:42 AM on September 7, 2013


Draw me like one of your French ghouls.
posted by idiopath at 8:45 AM on September 7, 2013 [7 favorites]


all the "bedazzling" could probably feed thousands of starving children

Liquidating the church's assets would crater the value of gold and jewels. The wealthy wouldn't be as wealthy. Best to protect them by sequestering the riches.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:45 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Classy. I wasn't raised catholic but would like someone to explain how the church mentally tap dances this stuff past the Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image commandment.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:52 AM on September 7, 2013


Not that it matters, but I think I would indeed prefer an egalitarian world without Pacific Rim or decorated corpses to the one we have. If it were possible, I'd even trade away the Internet — my home! the place I grew up! The thing that (for better or for worse) made me who I am today! — to live in a world with less fear of starvation and exposure and treatable disease.

Pacific Rim and decorated corpses are wonderful things that can serve as rallying points, as inspiration that a better world is possible, a world where Stacker Pentecost can cancel the apocalypse, where death isn't the end, and we can all be reborn clad in gold and jewels, yadda yadda yadda. But count me on the side of the reformers who consider the temporal wealth of the church then and the devoted worship of capital now as being on the whole a threat to the establishment of a better world, rather than as a sign that a better world is possible.

Yeah, I'm not comfortable with this position — by nature I'm a big-time iconodule and I don't like lining up with the iconoclasts at all — but nevertheless, it seems on the face of it correct.

also those skeletons are really creepy, okay?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:57 AM on September 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Beautiful stuff. Does remind me of Pirates of the Caribbean though.
posted by bongo_x at 9:17 AM on September 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Classy. I wasn't raised catholic but would like someone to explain how the church mentally tap dances this stuff past the Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image commandment.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:52 AM on September 7 [+] [!]


The "Graven Image" commandment refers to worshiping a "thing" instead of God, like the oft-referenced Golden Calf. People don't pray to the dead body as though it were an enchanted object, they're praying to the Saint it represents.

Now, if you want to get into how praying to specialized Saints instead of God directly kinda feels a bit like polytheism, you'll have to call for a manager.

/raised Catholic
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 9:17 AM on September 7, 2013 [6 favorites]


Not too surprising from the same church that brought us the Cadaver Synod, one of the weirdest things that has ever happened.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:30 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The page on ossuaries is nightmare fodder.

I went to Sedlec hoping for a nice creepy experience but there was a field trip there that day. A bunch of 14 year olds running around texting each other really takes the edge off a big pile of bones.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:32 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The "Graven Image" commandment refers to worshiping a "thing" instead of God, like the oft-referenced Golden Calf. People don't pray to the dead body as though it were an enchanted object, they're praying to the Saint it represents.

Yep. Even the Protestant objection to praying to the Saints is not that it's idolatry per se, but rather that it's mediation between regular people and God. Protestants generally don't pray to Mary either, for the same reason, nor confess to priests.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:48 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't it be great if the British Museum looted a few of these and put them on display?

Funny you should say that

But guys, guys, that was the Counter-Reformation. The Baroque was all about the bling and excess in demonstrating the earthly power and richness of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, therefore its heavenly power. The bling and the display of gold and relics was meant to dazzle and awe the common people. And the places quoted as receiving the relics were the ones affected by the Thirty Years War, which was the nastiest conflict in Europe ever until the past century. The Church had this pressing need to affirm its power in that time and those places, and that's why these blinged corpses are really not that surprising.
posted by sukeban at 10:06 AM on September 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure whether I should lead here with a Damien Hirst joke or a Hand of Vecna joke. Actually I've got no jokes, just references to pop culture.

Saints relics were a huge part of the tourism industry of Europe in pre-Modern times. Thousands of people would make pilgrimages to far away churches just to see or touch the holy remains of various dead saints. Modern Christianity has mostly moved away from such idolatry but it's really not that far in the past.

Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, available early October in the US for $22.
posted by Nelson at 10:13 AM on September 7, 2013


Sys Rq, I just made the connection between that and the fact that the only Protestant churches that I see named after saints are Episcopal -- that is, Catholic Lite. They might have mentioned that in the classes I took before I was baptized. (Or did they? I was fourteen. I can't remember.)

The skeleton with the blue-eyed insets is creepier than any pharaoh you care to name. I'm not easily squicked by preserved bodies from the past, but damn.

Earlier, I was listening to a BBC podcast discussing the Holy Thorn Reliquary, an enormously expensive and well-made housing for one thorn taken from a purported actual Crown of Thorns (which is still in France). It was hard for my 21st-century mind to accept that with all the ruthlessness and cunning required to amass such a fortune or to keep it, the duc de Berry, who commissioned the reliquary, could truly believe that this thing was genuine. Or that he could believe the same of "the wedding ring of the Virgin Mary, a cup used at the Wedding at Cana, a piece of the Burning Bush and many others" that he owned, according to the article. How could he have believed it? Or were the relics investments, in the same way that billionaires buy art today?
posted by Countess Elena at 10:19 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


St. Friedrich looks to have been quite the player. "Hey ladies..."
posted by hydrophonic at 10:19 AM on September 7, 2013


Proof that you can't take it with you, after all.

Unless all the bare skeletons actually made it out with their stuff!
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:21 AM on September 7, 2013


Oh, and now that I remember: there are two of these blinged corpses in Peterskirche in Vienna. For a couple of pictures see here (scroll down) and here for the other one.

To put them in context, the interior of Peterskirche looks like this. With all that much gold, the relics are not so remarkable.
posted by sukeban at 10:27 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


the morbid relics [. . .] became shrines reminding of the spiritual treasures of the afterlife

Ha!

Haha!

The disconnect between claimed reality and actual reality is often quite startling to me.

This is like 16th century trickle down economics, right? Give all of your gold to the church, and the wealth of the afterlife will trickle down to you!
posted by GrumpyDan at 10:44 AM on September 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sys Rq, I just made the connection between that and the fact that the only Protestant churches that I see named after saints are Episcopal -- that is, Catholic Lite.

Nah, there's lots if you really go looking. All the churches I grew up in -- United Church of Canada, ex-Methodist or -Presbyterian -- were called St. Matthew's or St. Mark's or whatever.

The difference is who is a saint and who isn't, and who's a capital-S Saint (generally people who hung around with the Jeezster in person) versus who's a lowercase-s saint (pretty much anyone who says "Yay God!" every now and then). No Pope, so no Canonization, and no prayer to anyone but capital-H Him.

But, yeah, the Episcopal/Anglican church is a bit weird in a lot of ways, and their relation to the Saints is no exception. They view their church as a linear continuation of the Catholic Church rather than an outright rejection of it, so, yeah. Saints aplenty.

the morbid relics [. . .] became shrines reminding of the spiritual treasures of the afterlife

Ha!


I know, right? And to think the big thing in Protestant art of the time was Memento Mori -- the exact opposite message conveyed the exact same way.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:15 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.



the only Protestant churches that I see named after saints are Episcopal

In my town, the Lutheran, AME, and Methodist are St. Somebody.


Memento Mori was a huge thing in Eurpoean life during that whole period.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:17 AM on September 7, 2013


And coming back to the main theme, we spaniards contributed a few notably gruesome examples to the genre, too.

(First link depicts a rotting bishop, so don't click if you don't want to see that)

It's even better because these two paintings in particular were commissioned to decorate a hospital in Seville. I swear I'm not joking.
posted by sukeban at 11:23 AM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


re: "The "starving children" critique is probably the least illuminating one to be made, because it's true ofso much art.

Unlike a painting, the gold and silver can be minted. More money in circulation would have strengthened the economy back then, so fewer starving children. But from a religious point of view, starving children are OK, so long as they have been "saved". Pain now, Heaven later.
posted by napaknapper at 11:47 AM on September 7, 2013


Nah, there's lots if you really go looking. All the churches I grew up in -- United Church of Canada, ex-Methodist or -Presbyterian -- were called St. Matthew's or St. Mark's or whatever.

The difference is who is a saint and who isn't, and who's a capital-S Saint (generally people who hung around with the Jeezster in person) versus who's a lowercase-s saint (pretty much anyone who says "Yay God!" every now and then). No Pope, so no Canonization, and no prayer to anyone but capital-H Him.


Oh, OK. Thanks for the link! As I say, I should have paid better attention in church instead of thinking about how much my shoes hurt and my hair was melting and whether my skirt was accidentally pushed way up in the back.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:58 AM on September 7, 2013


It's really not the sort of thing you'd learn in church anyway.

(They mostly just tell stories about how one time Jesus said a thing, or was born, or died or whatever. It's funny how rarely Other Ways Of Doing That come up.)
posted by Sys Rq at 12:22 PM on September 7, 2013


(Oh, unless it's, "Sorry, we're one of the grape juice ones.")
posted by Sys Rq at 12:30 PM on September 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


> Not too surprising from the same church that brought us the Cadaver Synod, one of the weirdest things that has ever happened.

It is always weird when a fandom retcons itself.
posted by mrzarquon at 12:42 PM on September 7, 2013


But from a religious point of view, starving children are OK, so long as they have been "saved". Pain now, Heaven later.

If that's true, then it's kind of hard to explain the huge number of Christian relief charities that keep feeding the poor.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:50 PM on September 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


hydrophonic: St. Friedrich looks to have been quite the player. "Hey ladies..."

I was thinking instead that he was the most casual of all the saints. "Oh, those other guys and gals? Waaay uptight. I'm the cool saint, the one all the kids revere."
posted by filthy light thief at 12:52 PM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Loved this post, but then, I am morbidly fascinated with mummies and skeletons. My traveling companions often accuse me of planning Ripley's Believe It or Not tours.

I've been the Ossuary in Evora, which was pretty weird...as you enter, there is a sign letting you know that these bones are waiting for your bones, or something to that effect. The 5,000+ skeletons are bizarre enough but there are also two spooky hanging cadavers that look mummified. And another weird thing at the entry hallway - there was a wall with hundreds of hanks of hair - long thick braids and tresses of various hues. We thought they would all be ancient, but one was marked with a date just a few days prior. The guide was joking with us in pantomime that he would like to cut our hair and add it to the collection - heh, heh -- not so funny, you kinda creepy ossuary guide!

Here's the back story of the hanging corpses and the hanging hanks of hair:

A statue of Jesus and an ornate, gilded altar are overshadowed by the chapel’s most gruesome decoration: two desiccated corpses hanging on a side wall. The bodies of a man and a small child are now several hundred years old, but there are still skin and shreds of clothing clinging to their pathetic frames. According to a tour guide, the man was a wife abuser, and his little son was just as disrespectful to his mother. The man finally beat his wife to death, but before she succumbed, she put a curse on her husband and child. She declared that they would soon follow her in death, but, since they were so evil, even Hell would not accept them. As she predicted, the pair soon died. When they were to be buried, the ground mysteriously turned hard as a rock, and their graves could not be dug. So, the monks took their bodies and put them on permanent display in the chapel, as a warning to other wife abusers and bad children. Whether true or not, the legend shows the Franciscan monks to have been feminists before their time. In recognition of this, local women engaged to be married cut off their hair and place the braids at the chapel entrance, making a symbolic sacrifice of their girlhood in supplication for a happy marriage. This custom continues today, with several fresh braids on display.
posted by madamjujujive at 1:18 PM on September 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's not a whole lot different than what we see from certain televangelists, cult leaders, MLM/LGAT schemes, and entertainment personalities. Ostentacious displays of wealth.

I guess people generally pay to believe in something or someone.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:41 PM on September 7, 2013


I've been to one ossuary, and it was a strange experience. It's in the Derg Museum in Addis Ababa; the derg were a pretty terrible socialist government that killed many thousands of people. The museum tells a bit of the story, with lots of pictures, and one room full of bones of people dug up from mass graves. It was eerie; perhaps especially so given that the history is so recent. The Derg came to power in 1974 and were kicked out in the late 80's/ early nineties...
posted by kaibutsu at 3:53 PM on September 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bunch of gem-encrusted skeletons wearing ceremonial robes found in cult catacombs and secret crypts, and not one of them is a lich laying in wait for the PCs? Man, that DM is asleep at the wheel.

I came here to make a lich joke, but of course was beaten to the punch. I couldn't look at these without having grim flashbacks to Tomb of Horrors.

Nevertheless, if I were a lich, this is totally how I'd roll...
posted by darkstar at 7:00 PM on September 7, 2013


Paul's a genius, willing to go a lot farther in the pursuit of lost lore than any art historian I know. He's also completely mortified by the Daily Mail's dubbing him "Indiana Bones." (I suggested "The Corpse Whisperer" would have been worse. And the book is #1 in a couple of categories on Amazon today, though he prefers you buy it from an independent retailer.) He'll be talking about the new book and his travels at the LAVA Sunday Salon in downtown LA on 9/29--do come if you're around, it's free.
posted by Scram at 9:31 PM on September 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm coining the term "skelazzling" for this.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:17 AM on September 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


These are really beautiful pictures, and I'm glad to have seen them. It's a part of history and particularly religious history that most don't get to say.

I have to say though that the amount of people making fun of Catholics in here is making me, as a lapsed Catholic, personally uncomfortable.
posted by corb at 5:53 AM on September 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


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