Religious relics have always been an integral part of Christianity. In the olden times, Christians preserved bodies or body parts of saints or holy people and used them as symbols of their faith. When relics were destroyed, churches would usually find ways to replace them. But did you know that there was a time that they used the bones of unknown people to recreate these relics?
Catacomb saints are basically replacement relics. Skeletons exhumed from Roman catacombs were decorated with gold and jewels. They were created after the Protestants destroyed the original vestiges of the Christian saints’ preserved bodies.
What are Catacomb Saints?
Between 1522 and 1566, Catholic churches endured many attacks which were part of the Protestant reformation. The attacks, known as the Great Iconoclasm, were led by riotous Calvinist Protestants, whose primary goal was to destroy the Catholic relics and symbols relating to their faith, believing it idolatrous. (Source: Ancient Origins)
Many altarpieces, monuments, crosses, and relics were destroyed, including the preserved bodies of saints. But during a session on the Council of Trent in 1563, Catholics argued that relics were essential to their faith. Many Catholics then decided to replace the sacred relics they had lost. However, their biggest challenge was where to find dead saints. (Source: Amusing Planet)
The answer to their challenge came from local vineyard workers in Rome. While working on the land on May 31, 1578, the laborers discovered a passageway leading to a complex network of long-forgotten catacombs beneath Via Salaria. They found that it was the Coemeterium Jordanorum or the Jordan Cemetery. It and the catacombs surrounding it were burial sites of early Christians, dating from the first to fifth century AD.
The Catholic church then discovered that the catacombs had remains of approximately 750,000 early Christians, Jews, and even pagan Romans. They also knew that pagans preferred cremation while early Christians wanted to be buried. The church assumed that most of the remains had to be from Christians.
Remains that the church believed to be from Christian martyrs were used to restore relics they lost in the Reform. They were called Katakombenheiligen, German for catacomb saints. The Vatican deduced that the bones were from martyrs if a capital M was found in its surrounding stones. These remains were then exhumed and prepared to become relics. (Source: Dirty, Sexy History)
How were these Remains Turned into Relics?
Before the remains would be shipped out to the churches that await them, skilled nuns and monks were known to be responsible for their preparation. Remains would be sent to different convents where it would be worked on, and the work usually takes around three years, according to Paul Koudounaris, an art historian and author.
The remains were wiped clean of dirt and bloodstains then would be decorated. Nuns made fine mesh gauze and used it to wrap the bones to serve as both protection as a material where they would attach gold, gems, or other items for luxurious fabric. Most of the materials were donated by local nobles.
Some nuns created full wax faces to cover the bare bone skull to make it appear more appealing. Koudounaris also noted in his book that most of the artists who created the catacomb saints were anonymous. There were no written records found of who built the masterpieces, and in that light, the author dedicated his book to those anonymous hands and that their beautiful work would not be forgotten. (Source: Smithsonian Magazine)