Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review: HEAVENLY BODIES: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, by Paul Koudounaris

Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, by Paul Koudounaris. Published 2013 by Thames and Hudson. Nonfiction.

One of my favorite parts of my job as a bookseller is shelving new books, because I get to see and handle so much of what goes out on the shop floor. It's fun to page through the random, weird, beautiful things we get in- and nothing was weirder or more random than Heavenly Bodies, art scholar Paul Koudounaris's book on the bizarre but striking phenomenon of the so-called "catacomb saints" of the German-speaking world.

So Koudounaris tells us, after the Reformation, concerned with waning belief among the faithful and eager to rally enthusiasm, the Roman Catholic Church embarked on a project of distributing skeletons believed to be of martyrs to churches in German-speaking countries, where the Protestant Reformation had taken hold most fervently. The skeletons were then dressed and jeweled in elaborate costumes and ornament, then displayed prominently in churches. Often the "saints" were the focus of intense worship and veneration; miracles were attributed to them, and they sometimes became the spiritual center of the towns in which they were hosted. People named their children for them, traveled miles to see them, prayed to them, believed they were healed by them.

But over the years they fell out of favor and the Church began to see them as an embarrassment. Some of the skeletons deteriorated; others were scientifically determined to not be what they were thought. And today only a few remain on view. Many others have been vandalized, sold off piece by piece or lay languishing in storage bins hardly befitting their regal splendour and past.

Koudounaris tells this fascinating story with the aid of many remarkable, striking photographs. The book is worth it just for the pictures, which will knock your socks off, but if you are interested in saints or strange corners of Catholic history, I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. I'm not sure what exactly Koudounaris's provenance is as a scholar but he writes a lively, engaging text about a truly wonderful and interesting bit of religious life.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.