Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Heavenly Folk Heroes

Remarkable Bejeweled Catholic Martyrs

I once had the remarkably good fortune to see some remains of Carmelite Nun St. Teresa of Avila. This 17th century Spanish mystic  was being housed for a short while with Carmelite Nuns  in Northern California who were gracious enough to invite me to see her before she was made available to the public. Her presence during this American tour drew thousands and thousands of people. 

Children with disabilities were held before the bejeweled glass case and   men and women sobbed and prayed in her presence in the hopes that the Carmelite reformer would touch their bodies, hearts, and souls.
Honoring beloved Catholic saints has long been a rich tradition. 16th century European Catholic churches preserved and bejeweled what they believed were catacomb saints. Roman corpses that were dug up from underground cemeteries in Rome are considered catacomb saints. These skeletons were celebrated as a way to boost the communities morale after the Protestant Revolution.

To identify if the body was a martyr Smithsonian Magazine explains in an article written about Paul Koudounaris’ Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs (Thames and Hudson Books)  , “If they found ‘M.’ engraved next to a corpse, they took it to stand for “martyr,” ignoring the fact that the initial could also stand for “Marcus,” one of the most popular names in ancient Rome.”It is not guaranteed that these skeletons really are the bodies of the people they are believed to be, but the extraordinary detail and art put into the bejeweling of these bodies make them remarkable nonetheless. 

While many of these bejeweled bones were destroyed in the 18th century, some still exist today, such as the 10 fully preserved bodies in the Waldsassen Basilica in Bavaria. Koudounaris described the skeletons he saw as, “The finest pieces of art ever created in human bone.” These beautiful forms of art, celebrating beloved folk heroes  were a monumental piece of many European Catholic churches in the 16th century, and can still be found today.

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