Sunday, August 24, 2014

On a Dead Frog


In the late 16th century, the cities and villages of Bavaria were the front lines of the battle between Catholics and Protestants. The Thirty-Years War had ravaged the country-side and many parish churches lay in ruins. Lutheran mobs burned cathedrals and rousted the relics of the saints from their repose, destroying them with fire. Luther had mocked the vials of holy blood and fragments of skeletons in their gilded reliquaries as "the bones of dogs and horses." But Catholic beliefs and customs were deeply entrenched, particularly in the rural parishes, and, with the help of Rome, the Holy Mother Church fought back, regaining territory in the south of Germany.

In this sacred war, an important weapon was the strategic deployment of so-called Katakombenheiligen – that is, "Catacomb saints." By happy coincidence, Rome’s vast underground cemeteries were accidentally rediscovered in the mid-16th century. The catacombs were crammed to overflowing with bones thought to be the remains of martyrs who had perished in the Roman persecutions of the first and second centuries Anno domino. The Council of Trent in 1545 had declared the Roman Catholic Church militant, initiating the Counter-Reformation. In 1563, the Church in another council at Trentino, declared the continued efficacy of relics as aids to salvation. In the wake of these developments, skeletons were retrieved from the catacombs, articulated, and, then, sent in squadrons of hundreds, and, even, thousands north to embattled Germany. These Katakombenheiligen were installed in churches throughout Bavaria with great pomp and circumstance. The holy bodies were crowned and studded with precious gems, dressed in armor or sacred vestments, and, then, encased in crystalline caskets. Veneration of the ancient martyrs, now raised from the dead and displayed in all their sacred radiance, was supposed to embolden the Catholics to resist the Lutheran pestilence raging at their borders.

Paul Koudounaris has written a wonderful and concise book about the "Catacomb-saints" and their deployment in Bavaria, Heavenly Bodies – Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. Although Koudounaris’ text is informative and fascinating, the book’s real appeal is morbid – brilliant colored photographs showing the Saints and their spectacular accessories. Nuns and highly accomplished craftsmen specialized in encrusting the articulated skeletons in semi-precious gems and lacy filigrees of gold . Many of the putative martyrs have eye-sockets encircled with gilded filigree that outline huge blue-crystals inserted where eyes once would have been. Skeletons equipped with eyes of this sort have a peculiar, eerie quality – it is as if they are staring at the worshiper with vast, inhuman, insect-like eyes, glaring eyes that have an accusatory mien. Exposed bone joints are entrapped in armatures of gold dripping ruby and emerald gemstones. Mandibles and skeletal chins are whiskered with pearls inset in gold web. Most of the corpses wear huge crowns lurid with gems and brocades stiff with jewelry embedded in the heavy cloth seemingly spun with gold and silver threads. Some of the skeletons stand upright wearing armor, gilded cuirasses and greaves, heavy broadswords clasped across their ribs. The female saints recline coyly on brocaded pillows, heads turned to the spectator to display amethyst in gaping eye-sockets, limbs arranged in a delicate contrapposto posture. Fingers are studded with garish rings and gemstones. Bony toes are thrust through sandals made of gold and topaz, ankles articulated with chains of lapis lazuli. Many of the saints, particularly those who died under torture as pious virgins, have their faces partially concealed behind translucent veils – the glitter of gold and precious stones shimmers behind the sheer cloth. One modest female martyr covers her bony face with a hand shimmering with gems. The spectacle is stupefying, vulgar, terrible, and utterly fascinating.

The Catacomb-saints are one aspect of the European baroque at its most exuberant. Their meretricious glory is congruent with the rococo splendor of the churches in which they reside. The saints were supposed to represent the Church Triumphant, raised up in glory, the splendor the New Jerusalem that St. John beheld in the revelation to him on Patmos. But, I think, these skeletons entrapped in their armor of beryl, sapphires, and gold can be compared to some of Bach’s work as well – a rigorous and graceful structure, obdurate as bone, is gilded at its interstices with particularly voluptuous ornaments, all those grace notes, trills, appoggiatura, mordents and glittering Scheifer applied as surface decoration to a hard, rigid armature. Macabre and uncanny, the holy martyrs also remind me of the baroque lead and bronze caskets that I saw once in the Kaisersgruft in Vienna, huge black beetles, swollen and the size of limousines, their dark carapaces covered with reliefs of grinning skeletons waving scythes and hourglasses at the dismayed spectator.

Fashion is queen of the world and, of course, mutable. Ultimately, the Katakombenheiligen lost their cachet. Worshipers were embarrassed by the skeletons entangled in their skeins of pearls and amethyst. In many cases, discrete painted panels were built to screen the illustrious corpses from view. Some of the skeletons were denuded of their finery, equipped with wax hands and faces, and clad in relatively modest Victorian vestments. A few churches donated their saints to museums. Koudounaris books shows one spectacular recumbent saint, encased in a glass coffin, discarded in a church storeroom, a broken chair set on top of her casket, and the remnants of a hundred years past Christmas pageants heaped-up around the poor martyr.

It’s humid today and the sky is leaden and the trees seem heavy and engorged with dew. Puddles reflect a silver in the sky that is not visible when you turn your head upward to the swollen tropical clouds. By my back door, an apple tree has hurled ten-thousand small green apples, some of them delicately tinted with a red blush onto the driveway and my car has crushed many of them into pulp so that the air smells of decay and fermenting cider. On the sidewalk, I saw a diadem of emerald, a bouquet of brilliant green gemstones that immediately caught my attention and made me think of the Katacombenheiligen in their rock-crystal caskets. I bent to look at this crown of emeralds and, as I stooped, the massive, many-faceted gem dissolved into a swarm of bottle-green, iridescent flies. The flies swirled around my face and I had to grip my lips tightly shut to keep from swallowing some of them. The flies had been feasting on a crushed frog, the lichen-colored diagram of the little animal imprinted on the sidewalk, martyred, no doubt, by a passing skateboard or bicycle wheel.

There are many kinds of Saint and Kingdom of Heaven is always around us.


  1. Seems like your writing used to be a lot better. That last paragraph sounds like it was written by the dog.

    1. She dictated it and I wrote the text as announced by my dog. This is a very astute observation.