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p.48-9 St Benedictus © Paul Koudounaris
St BenedictusPaul Koudounaris

Skeletons in the closet

Paul Koudounaris goes #tripping through catacombs to find skeletons dripping in diamonds

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Exhuming the dead is nothing out of the ordinary for Paul Koudounaris – the author and photographer behind The Empire of Death – who has combed through the catacombs to pull out the eeriest of treasures for a new book, Heavenly Bodies by Thames & Hudson. Skeletons dripping in diamonds and drenched in gold – these bony bedfellows were once thought to be martyrs who sacrficed their lives for the glory of God. Armed with a nose for death and a camera bag, Paul Koudounaris tracked these spectacular saints all over Europe and walks us through his most curious moments beyond the veil…


I was travelling around Europe photographing these bone rooms and somewhere along the line in an Eastern part of Germany, I was photographing this crypt full of skulls and this local guy came to me and said, “If you’re interested in bones, if you go through this path in the forest you’ll come to this abandoned little chapel with a skeleton standing there covered in jewels and holding a glass of his own blood like he’s offering a toast." I thought the guy was lying. It sounds like something from an Iron Maiden video, you know? I went through this path in the forest and sure enough I found this chapel and the skeletons were covered in jewels, and at first I thought it was just a freak of local history or something, like a one-off. I eventually went into another church and at the back of this other church I found two of these skeletons, really similar, they were hidden in the back and they had taken them out and so at this point in time I realised, this isn’t a one-off freak.


The skeletons were first discovered in the Roman catacombs. The catacombs were very old so they decided if they come from the Roman catacombs they must be from early Christian days, they must be martyrs. They’d ship them as naked bone up north, as presumably the skeletons of early martyrs. They decorated them the way they did because these people had died for God. It’s unlikely that any of them were early Christian martyrs but people believed that at the time and they decorated them that way because they died for the glory of God. Decorating them was a way to cover them in the glory which they had earned. People would donate money to buy the decorations, but noble families would also offer their own clothing to the skeleton and then the clothing would be specially tailored to reveal the bones, but that was real clothing that people had worn.


One time in particular in Moosburg, Germany, I literally discovered the [hidden skeletons] because nobody knew it existed; I had an old record of it and I was able to find it perched in an old box sitting inside an altar, and so it was the one time that I actually got to reassemble one myself because they allowed me to open up the box and take all the bones out and put it back together for a photo. It was kind of a profound experience because I was literally reassembling this one holy object. I had another very strange experience in a small town in Switzerland where I had gone to photograph one of these skeletons and every time I turned to leave, I’d pick up my camera bag and the strap on the camera bag would break, and the woman at the church said to me, “There’s something wrong with your camera bag.” And I said, “I don’t think so, I think the skeleton doesn’t want me to leave,” and she kind of laughed nervously. I was like, “No, I really don’t think it wants me to leave,” so I went up the skeleton and I just sort of stood in front of him and said, “Look, I gotta go. I’m sorry, but the only reason I’m going is so I can tell the world that you’re really beautiful,” so I picked up my camera bag and it didn’t break and I turned and opened the door and the look on the lady's face was just classic and afterwards she just locked the door and ran away.


I rolled into one funny incident where I was in a church somewhere in Germany and sometimes they’d be rather quick with you, you know? Sometimes you know you’re intruding on their time and they’ve unlocked this thing for you and given you access but sometimes they just want you to get out of there as quickly as you can and I remember I turned to the guy and I said, "How much time do I have left?" And he said, “You know, take as much time as you want, I’m really enjoying watching you do this.” I said, “Why?” and he said "Do you realise you’re talking to it?” I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “You’re talking to it like a fashion model!” I didn’t even realise that but it was like model for me and a fashion shoot and it turned into this really good relationship between me and them.


A couple of times  I would go through the pictures and I use a very high resolution camera and I would blow the pictures up and start looking through them and I would find some really, really awful things. Some of them had little worms and slugs crawling around on the inside of them, infested with termites and stuff and I wouldn’t want to say anything because why get into it? Do I just go back and tell them, "By the way, the skeleton in your closet is infested with carpet bugs," so I wanted to leave that alone.

I have a book that should come out next that is a more global book, at the same time I have been working on the other two books. I have also been travelling around a lot of Africa, South America and Asia, documenting burial caves and more contemporary practices involving human bones, documenting cults that literally worship human bones, so that’s going to come out in about a year.

Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs is out now by Thames & Hudson