If you’ve ever been to Europe, there’s a chance you’ve seen one or two bedazzled skeletons.
If you haven’t, well, you’re missing out.
The skeletons in question are remains that were unearthed from Roman Catacombs as bare bones in 1578 and assumed to be Christian martyrs. This assumption was made because the remains were in the correct location to belong to martyrs of the faith who had lived in the centuries shortly after the death of Jesus Christ, during which thousands were killed.
Though thousands of bodies were found, only a select few were chosen for this bedazzling. Many were chosen because they gave off a golden glow, had a perfumed smell much like the incorrupt saints of the Catholic church, or were simply buried near an engraved “M” which was thought to have meant “martyr.”
After their rediscovery, the Catholic church reassembled, renamed, and covered the skeletons in gold, jewels, and other treasures — some even had their eye sockets filled and their teeth adorned. The bejeweled skeletons were then put on display in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany for all to see.
But these glamorous idols didn’t last long — in the 18th and 19th centuries, many began to question whether or not the martyrs were legitimate. Much of the skeletons were destroyed or hidden away, viewed as illegitimate or even wasteful.
Today, only around 300 of the thousands of original skeletons are still in existence, and many of those are hidden away or disintegrating.
There are, however, a few still on display for those who are curious to see them:
- In the Waldsassen Basilica of Waldsassen, Bavaria, stands the largest intact collection with 10 full skeletons.
- Maximus in Bürglen, Switzerland and St. Pancratius in Wil, Switzerland are both believed to have been Christian soldiers, so they can be seen wearing gilded armor.
- Vincentus of the Stams Monastery in Austria holds his hand above his face to cover it as a gesture of humility and modesty.
- The arrival of Felix in Gars am Inn, Germany, is said to have saved the town’s market from being destroyed by a fire. There is a pilgrimage in his honor.
To learn even more about these skeletons, you can pick up a copy of Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Dr. Paul Koudounaris, an expert in art history. Koudounaris painstakingly traveled the world photographing these martyrs and recording their stories, and his book is one of the most complete accounts of their existence.