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Jeweled skeletons from Europe to be lecture topic

Decorated relics were photographed for Los Angeles man's book.

October 30, 2013|By Brittany Levine, brittany.levine@latimes.com
  • St. Munditia from the Church of St. Peter in Munich, Germany was once considered the patron saint of spinsters and older women.
St. Munditia from the Church of St. Peter in Munich, Germany… (Courtesy of Paul…)

While photographing a crypt full of skulls in Eastern Germany doing research two years ago, Paul Koudounaris, an art historian who specializes in the visual culture surrounding death, was asked by a stranger if he'd like to see a skeleton covered in jewels holding a cup of its own dehydrated blood.

For Koudounaris, the answer was a no-brainer.

"For a guy who was going around the world studying bone rooms, that was like asking a child if he wanted to go to Candyland," said the Los Angeles resident who is set to talk this Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at the Glendale Central Library about 17th century decorated skeletons from Europe.

At first, Koudounaris thought the skeleton with the dehydrated blood, which he found after the stranger gave him directions to a run-down chapel, was the only one. Then he discovered more hidden away, all decorated from head to toe in jewels.

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In 2013, his book, "Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs," was published. It tells of the so-called "Catacomb Saints," who were described as early Christian martyrs by the Catholic Church.

Why were the skeletons decorated?

Paul Koudounaris: They were decorated this way as a kind of public relations measure for the Catholic Church. Back in the 17th century, in particular, the church was locked in a very tense struggle for territory with the Protestants, and these skeletons were sent to those regions, primarily German-speaking areas, to show people that God saves his greatest glory — literally glory, this incredible opulence represented by the jeweled bodies — for those who are true in their faith…. A martyr, of course, represents the ultimate in faith, giving one's life is the ultimate act of devotion. So they were kind of perfect role models for a church in distress, trying to motivate its devotees.

Who keeps the relics and how did you get access to them?

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