Photo gallery: Extraordinary pictures of the catacomb ‘saints’

In 1578 the remains of thousands of individuals assumed to be early Christian martyrs were discovered in Rome. The remains were given fictitious names and sent to Catholic churches and religious institutions in German-speaking Europe as relics of saints 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 the skeletons were venerated as 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. In his new book, Heavenly Bodies, art historian Paul Koudounaris tracked down a number of these skeletons, gaining unprecedented access to photograph them in some of the most secretive religious establishments in Europe. Here is a selection of images from the book…

p.22 St Albertus © Paul Koudounaris
The arrival of the remains of St Albertus from the Roman Catacombs in 1723 was a source of great excitement for the parishioners of the church of St George in Burgrain, Germany, offering both a tangible connection to the early Christian martyrs and a glimpse of the heavenly treasures that awaited the faithful.

p.12-3 St Valerius in Weyarn © Paul Koudounaris
Records concerning the decoration of St Valerius in Weyarn are incomplete, but similarities in technique with the relic of Albertus in Burgrain suggest that there may be a connection between the two.

p.48-9 St Benedictus © Paul Koudounaris
This St Benedictus was received by the church of St Michael in Munich, even though it was not a Benedictine foundation but a court for Clemens August I of Bavaria

p.56 relic of St Deodatus in Rheinau © Paul Koudounaris
The relic of St Deodatus in Rheinau, Switzerland, is an example of an unusual reconstruction technique in which a wax face was moulded over the upper half of the skull and a fabric wrap used to create a mouth.

p.61 St Luciana © Paul Koudounaris
St Luciana arrived at the convent in Heiligkreuztal, Germany, in the mid-eighteenth century and was prepared for display by the nuns in Ennetach.

p.78-9 St Friedrich at the Benedictine abbey in Melk © Paul Koudounaris
St Friedrich at the Benedictine abbey in Melk, Austria, is presented in a typical reclining pose and holds a laurel branch as a sign of victory.

p.88-9 In Stams, Austria © Paul Koudounaris
In Stams, Austria, the ribs of St Vincentus are exposed beneath a web of golden leaves’ the hand raised to cover the face is a gesture of modesty.

Heavenly Bodies Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, by Paul Koudounaris, published by Thames & Hudson, £18.95. All images © 2013 Paul Koudounaris