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Empire of Death

Art historian Paul Koudounaris' latest book is a collection of images and insights into ancient religious masterpieces, crafted from human remains

From stunning chandeliers made from human bones to exhumed skeletons draped in gold jewellery, 'Empire Of Death' is a jaw-dropping collection of images and insights into ancient religious masterpieces crafted from human remains, photographed and contextualised by art historian Paul Koudounaris. The results of three years travelling to more than 70 crypts, catacombs and ‘bone churches’ across Europe and beyond, it’s the first serious study of these charnel houses and ossuaries – many hundreds of years old, and normally unseen by the general public.

Dazed Digital: Paul, how were you drawn to these ‘bone churches’?
Paul Koudounaris:
I am a bit macabre to begin with. I also have a PhD in Baroque-era Art History, so I did have some prior knowledge of these types of decorated ossuaries. An ossuary in Melnik (Czech Republic) was the genesis of the project – I stumbled in by accident. And it just so happened that I had been at the famous “Bone Church” (the Sedlec Ossuary) the day before. I found the two sites to be equal in their impact, but was confused how no one seemed to know anything at all about this Melnik ossuary… Even back in Prague, just half an hour away, people in the tourist industry flat out told me the place didn’t exist! I became curious, first about how many more of these places were hidden under churches and city streets, and then I became interested in seriously researching and creating a context in which to understand them. 

DD: What do you think of today’s burial practices? Would you like to see modern churches decorated with skeletal remains?
Paul Koudounaris: There is something hypocritical about modern mortuary practices. We don’t want the dead around at all any more, so we ask the deceased to play out one last scene as a living person, dressed and made up as if they are still alive – whereas the natural state of a corpse is putrefaction. It strikes me as escapist and fictive. As for modern churches using skeletal remains… oh, I would adore that! The only time you still get charnels being built is not in a church context, but a memorial one – at the Killing Fields in Cambodia for example, or the genocide memorial in Rwanda.

DD: How has this project affected the way you think about death?
Paul Koudounaris: What it did was change the way I think about life and death, together. The best way I can describe it is to explain how I felt when I was completely alone in a large charnel. The feeling was one of timelessness and unity. Timeless, because I stood in the present, stared into the past, and contemplated the future – somehow, time seemed to collapse around me.

DD: What challenges did you face as a photographer? 
Paul Koudounaris: Oh, man… I can honestly tell you there was never a single easy shoot. It could be anything – finding ways to polarize out impossible glares, incredibly awkward angles – at one place in Austria, I had to create a device to allow the camera to be suspended upside-down from on high, it was the only way to get the shot I needed. I never brought in any artificial light or used a flash, because I wanted to capture the authentic mood. So, very long exposure times, and that necessitated a lot of film – digital cameras don’t like four or five hours of 20-second exposures, it kills the sensor.

The hardest part of photographing these sites though was not the technical challenge, it was a mental one. I learned early on how to take a great-looking picture in a charnel house. But I wanted to take photos that on some level expressed my own reaction to the site. That is a lot harder. 

DD: What was your most memorable experience while researching this? 
Paul Koudounaris: I went to Mt. Athos in Greece – every Orthodox country has a monastery there, and they still charnel according to ancient tradition. The Russian monastery at Athos has one of the most beautiful charnels I saw anywhere, and the painted skulls are the best I ever found – the Russian monks on Athos are like the Rembrandts of skull-painting, they are the absolute masters. I dearly wanted to photograph those skulls for the book, but the abbot is convinced God does not want anyone to photograph on the monastery’s grounds, particularly in the bone room.

I met with him to ask if he would consider an exception. It was like going to see the Wizard of Oz – I was on my knees before this old abbot who looked like Rasputin, in this huge gilded hall, and a monk who spoke English was translating for me. The abbot tells me he thinks I am doing something wonderful, but he cannot let me take the photos – nothing personal, but he must comply with the wishes of God. I told him that I understood fully, and respected his judgment.

As I got up to leave, he told me another man had come once, and that he had denied him permission also. I told him I in no way thought his decision was personal, but he said, “Just so you know, that man was Vladimir Putin.” Putin? Yes, apparently he visited the monastery, and even gave them a million US dollars for repairs, then asked if he might take photos of the painted skulls, but they told him no. I thanked him for sharing that, since it really put things in perspective, and again turned to leave, but he said something more: “I know you are disappointed, and if it makes you feel any better, I want you to know that I have looked very carefully at all your materials, and frankly you are a better photographer than Putin.” So, I didn’t get the pictures, but somehow that comment made that entire trip worthwhile.

'Empire of Death' by Paul Koudounaris is published by Thames & Hudson