Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris

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Forthcoming from Thames and Hudson, the book Heavenly Bodies is a history of skeletons taken from the Roman Catacombs as presumed martyrs, and articulated and lavishly decorated with jewels and other precious items. It will be released in Fall 2013.

The book The Empire of Death was released in 2011. Named one of the years ten best books by several publications, it is available from numerous online and retail vendors. It can, among other sites, be ordered via this link to Amazon (this is the USA site, it is also offered via Amazon through different country sites, in both English and French translation).

“Dear Paul: Death is the big one. We have to make room for other journeys and other adventures . . the subject of your book is life . . . and this material can change peoples’ lives.”—Joel-Peter Witkin

“It’s a magnificent production and an imaginative venture, superbly produced. It is a joy to see these bonescapes without inhaling a curious odour which these artistic assemblies of human remains diffuse. Thanks to . . . Paul Koudounaris for the coffee table book of the decade and I make no bones about saying it!”—Barrie Humphries (Dame Edna Everage)

I had completed a PhD in Art History at UCLA in 2004, and two years later found a research topic which would occupy me for the next four years. The idea for the book was born in the reception area of a Czech hostel. I had spent a day in Melnik , where I visited an extraordinary charnel house in the crypt under the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. It was gritty and dirty—decidedly not sanitized for tourists—but the arrangements of the bones showed genius, not just in formal artistic principles, but also in their understanding of philosophy and theology. To this day, the charnel in Melnik remains one of my favorites.

That evening, at the hostel in Prague, the receptionist asked about my day. I told him I had been to an extraordinary ossuary, or kostnice in Czech, in the town of Melnik. No, he told me, it’s in Sedlec, near Kutna Hora. He was referring to the famous one, the one they call the “Bone Church,” the one everyone seems to know about and appears in all the tourist guides. The one I myself had visited a few days previously—but not on this day, because, I explained, I had been in Melnik. No, you were in Sedlec, that is where it is, he told me. How can he not know about this, I wondered as he handed me my key. How can he not know about this remarkable place, even closer than the one in Sedlec? Had not other tourists been there? I determined to find out how many more of these places there might be.

The answer was about seventy on four continents, for me to visit, photograph, and research, plus countless others I found in historic documents, grande dames which had fallen by the wayside of the passing centuries. They are presented in the book The Empire of Death, containing hundreds of those photographs and a text which not only recovers their history, but the history of the religious movement which gave birth to them. In the process of compiling that book, I was introduced to s second extraordinary topic: skeletons taken from the Roman Catacombs during the Counter Reformation, and decorated (usually by nuns) entirely in jewels, and set into Catholic Churches. These extraordinary skeletons are the finest works of art in human bone that I have ever seen. They stood probably through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but were rejected by later generations and hidden away. The quest to document these remarkable works of art is the topic of the second book, Heavenly Bodies. These is not a book about the macabre or death. They are books about beauty and salvation. If you understand that when looking at the photos on this website, then I hope you will choose to read the books.

Paul Koudounaris