Statues of saints in Catholic churches aren’t anything surprising; skeletons of Saints adorned with precious stones and pearls, however, are quite a lot rarer and also much more fascinating. These bejeweled skeletons can be found in churches throughout Austria, Bavaria, and Switzerland and while they were rather common in the 17th century, many were taken down, looted, or lost in the 18th and 19th centuries. I am always amazed and amused by any bejeweled saint I come across; most of them nonchalantly repose on cushions and seem to try to make eye contact with those who meander down the side aisles of a church (most bejeweled saints are by side altars).
During my last trip to Austria and Bavaria, I was lucky enough to see quite a few of these bejeweled saints (without actually looking for them). They are so-called Catacomb Saints and meant to personify the glory of afterlife – which explains the relaxed poses and the over-the-top jewels; I guess there is no stress and plenty of riches. The Catacomb Saints are skeletons that were found in catacombs in Rome, Italy in May 1578. During road construction, an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 remains dating back to the first three centuries of Christianity were found. Based on the amount and age of the remains found, the conclusion was that some of these remains must be the relics of early Christian martyrs. Perfect timing – during the Protestant Reformation in Europe many relics (the physical remains or personal effects of saints or venerated persons) had been destroyed or lost, and now new relics had been found. It was an opportunity to “restock” so to speak.
The Catacomb Saints of course came without labels or a resume, so names were invented for them after they had been declared saints by the Church. Thus, many of the saints have very German-sounding names to fit the place where they were going to be housed. Catacomb Saints were often gifts by the rich and famous to a church, such as Saint Friedrich, who was presented to the Abbey of Melk by Austrian Empress Maria Theresia.
Fine mesh gauze covers the bones and jewelry; precious stones and pearls are sown to the fabric. The elegant clothes and fancy jewelry were often donated by the rich of the parish. Most of the work was usually preformed by nuns but also by monks. While I am fascinated by the poses of the skeletons and the artistry of placing the jewels, many visitors are rather put off by the display.
This repulsion by some may be one of the main reasons why so many of the saints are not displayed to their best advantage: the glass cases are often old, dusty, and badly lit, so it is hard to see the details clearly or take a picture; few of the saints have clear descriptions beyond their names on labels; signage that could also explain their history and importance at one time is non-existent usually; and most of them are placed in side niches cordoned off by rope, so it is easy to overlook them. Guidebooks and even leaflets about the history of the building and parish found in the church rarely if ever mention the saints. This meant that I usually came to see a church and “stumbled” across a Catacomb Saint, so if you are interested in seeing some of the saints, do some research ahead of time to look for the churches that still display these amazing examples of sacral art.
Note: Details about the Catacomb Saint are mostly from the signage at some of the churches that I did find as well as an article by CNN, which has some pretty amazing photos of the saints as well. I visited the churches in Engeslzell, Reichersberg, and Melk (all in Austria) and in Aldersbach in Bavaria.