Rachel Nuwer describes the work of art historian Paul Koudounaris, whose book, Heavenly Bodies, documents how the bones of Christian martyrs in Roman catacombs were transformed into bejeweled relics, which were displayed in churches throughout Europe. How Vatican investigators determined which remains belonged to a departed saint:
[T]he process of ascertaining which of the thousands of skeletons belonged to a martyr was a nebulous one. 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. If any vials of dehydrated sediment turned up with the bones, they assumed it must be a martyr’s blood rather than perfume, which the Romans often left on graves in the way we leave flowers today. The Church also believed that the bones of martyrs cast off a golden glow and a faintly sweet smell, and teams of psychics would journey through the corporeal tunnels, slip into a trance and point out skeletons from which they perceived a telling aura. After identifying a skeleton as holy, the Vatican then decided who was who and issued the title of martyr.
Once a skeleton was selected, highly-skilled monks and nuns would prepare it for presentation to a congregation, a process that could take up to three years:
Each convent would develop its own flair for enshrouding the bones in gold, gems and fine fabrics. The women and men who decorated the skeletons did so anonymously, for the most part. But as Koudounaris studied more and more bodies, he began recognizing the handiwork of particular convents or individuals. “Even if I couldn’t come up with the name of a specific decorator, I could look at certain relics and tie them stylistically to her handiwork,” he says.
Nuns were often renowned for their achievements in clothmaking. They spun fine mesh gauze, which they used to delicately wrap each bone. This prevented dust from settling on the fragile material and created a medium for attaching decorations. Local nobles often donated personal garments, which the nuns would lovingly slip onto the corpse and then cut out peepholes so people could see the bones beneath. Likewise, jewels and gold were often donated or paid for by a private enterprise. To add a personal touch, some sisters slipped their own rings onto a skeleton’s fingers.
Read the recent Dish thread on relics, “Saints on Display,” here.
(Photo of Saint Munditia’s relics, found in St. Peter’s Church in Munich, Germany, via Wikimedia Commons)