Divine Inspiration: How Rome’s Unknown Dead Became Catacomb Saints

St Valerius

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

On May 31st, 1578, vineyard workers in Rome found a passageway that led into an extensive network of long-forgotten catacombs beneath the Via Salaria. The Coemeterium Jordanorum (Jordanian Cemetery) and surrounding catacombs were burial sites from the earliest days of Christianity, dating from between the first and fifth centuries AD.

By the time these catacombs were found, the Catholic Church had been struggling with the Reformation for decades. While certain human remains had been venerated as sacred relics for centuries*, Protestant Reformers rejected the practice of keeping relics as idolatry. Bodies were to return to dust, and that included the bodies of saints as well. Throughout the Reformation, countless relics were interred, vandalized, or destroyed.

With relics under scrutiny from Reformers, the issue was addressed at the Twenty-Fifth Session of the Council of Trent in 1563. The Council maintained that relics were an essential part of Catholic life, and they had a point—kept in local churches, relics were still important to communities. Though they were viewed as sacred, their origins were rightly questioned. Forgeries—random bones or other found items sold as sacred—were common and undermined the value of the remains as religious artifacts. To combat the sale of forgeries, the Council decided that going forward, all relics would have to be authenticated by the Church. 

Relics had always been popular among the laity, and the transportation of new holy relics into German-speaking countries became a strategy of the Counter-Reformation. They needed to replace what had been destroyed, but where were they going to find more saints?

heavenly-1

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

The discovery of the catacombs under the Via Salaria must have felt like an answer to a prayer. The catacombs held the remains of an estimated 750,000 people, including early Christians, Jews, and some pagan Romans. While cremation was more common among pagan Romans, Christians wanted to be buried to allow for the possibility of resurrection; though thousands were resurrected following their discovery, not one of them could have predicted what awaited them after death.

The Church needed relics, and they found them. The bodies of those believed to be Christian martyrs became known as the Katakombenheiligen, the Catacomb Saints. While they had not been canonized and their identities were unknown, these bodies were used to show the connection between the earliest Christians and the post-Reformation Church. They were to symbolize the essential truth of the Catholic doctrine through that connection, and to boost morale among the Catholic communities hurting following the looting of their churches.

But if their identities were unknown, how could they prove they were martyrs? Because they had died during a time of persecution, many were assumed to be martyrs, but depending on who was asked, there were some other signs as well—some believed the bones of martyrs smelled sweeter, while others claimed they had an otherworldly glow. Though the Church had resolved to use more scientific methods of identification following the Council of Trent, conditions in the catacombs were less than ideal. The newest bones were still more than a thousand years old at that point, and any identifying plaques or stones were long gone. Worse, many bodies had been moved over the years to protect them from looting invaders.

The bones that were found could not be positively identified as Christian, much less martyrs, so they relied on largely illegible engravings on the surrounding stones. Anytime they found a capital M—which could be there for any reason from names to common inscriptions—or a depiction of a palm frond, they took this as evidence they had found a martyr’s grave. During one investigation of another catacomb in the 1560s, an Augustinian monk concluded there were at most three identifiable martyrs down there, but by the following century, there were said to be up to 200,000.

As soon as they were found, the remains began to make their way north. It’s impossible to estimate just how many skeletons and individual bones were shipped to the German-speaking countries affected by the Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but demand was so high that the Church had to create a new office to manage the excavation of the catacombs as well as starting the Sacred Congregation of Rites and Ceremonies to oversee the whole process. The saints’ popularity increased following the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648); churches wanted to replace the relics that had been ransacked, and wealthier families also purchased them as symbols of piety.

heavenly-7

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

They were certainly symbols of status. The skeletons were given Latin names and decorated from skull to metatarsal in gold and jewels. Decoration varied, but it was often extravagant. The jewels were real or expensive imitations, and the skeletons were dressed in robes of velvet and silk embroidered with gold thread. A few were even given silver plate armor.

As striking as the end result was, there was more to constructing the catacomb saints than decorating dead bodies. Bones that old required expert handling and reconstruction, so they were given to nuns who specialized in the preservation of relics. Many of their convents were known for their mastery of decorative arts, and the state of the Katakombenheiligen today is a testament to their skill and devotion.

Restoration and decoration was a delicate process that could take years to complete. Bones were strengthened with glue, painted, and protected with layers of nearly transparent silk gauze or tulle. Missing pieces were reconstructed with wax, wood, or papier-mâché. In the cases where skulls were missing or too badly damaged, they were replaced with ceramic or wood and plaster.

Given the time, resources, and dedication it would have taken to construct the saints, it is devastating to consider how few have survived to the present day. Viewed as morbid and embarrassing during the nineteenth century**, many were stripped of their jewels and hidden or destroyed. Of all of the catacomb saints that once filled Europe, only about ten percent remain, and few can be viewed by the public. Quite aside from their religious significance, they are stunning works of art and represent a part of history that, while potentially controversial to some, is nevertheless worth remembering.

On August 15th of every year, Roggenburg does just that. Every year, it holds a Leiberfest (Celebration of the Bodies) in order to display and honor the catacomb saints. Once common among towns that had them, Roggenburg’s annual Leiberfest is the last one in the world. During this festival, Roggenburg’s four Katakombenheiligen are brought out of storage and paraded through town on litters decorated with flowers. The three female saints–Laurentia, Severina, and Valeria–are carried by young women wearing white, and St Venatius is carried by young men in top hats and tails.

Jessica Cale

*This practice also occurs in many other world religions
**Yes, even the nineteenth century found them morbid

Further reading: 

For more on the Katakombenheiligen, be sure to check out Paul Koudounaris’s Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. Atlas Obscura also has a fun post about Roggenburg’s Leiberfest here.

The Joy of Confessing: “Women’s Vices” and Burchard’s Decretum of 1003

Some people think medieval history is boring—all religion, suppression, and marrying for alliances—but we know better, don’t we? Medieval history is a Pandora’s box of surprises, and the deeper you go, the stranger they get. Case in point, penitentials. Yes, I’m going to get into sources here with you for a minute, but bear with me, it’s worth it.

When studying the Middle Ages, the temptation is to stop at Canon Law, that is, the rules and guidelines set by the Church. The mistake is in assuming everyone lived by it; even prominent people within the Church disagreed with each other on many key points, and the laws they reached by consensus were laws for an ideal world where everyone lived perfect Christian lives according to the standard of whichever pope they happened to have at the time. As you can imagine, not everyone lived the way Rome wanted them to. To get a more accurate picture of medieval life, we need to consider other sources like court documents, medical texts, and even popular literature. The source we’re going to be looking at today is a personal favorite of mine: pentitentials.

sex with a dragon

When I get busy with dragons, I never forget my crown

What, pray tell, is a penitential? It’s every bit as exciting as it sounds. Penitentials were confessional literature compiled by monks as guides to the theory and application of confession. Spanning hundreds of pages and multiple volumes, penitentials listed every sin imaginable in separate categories and advised punishments for each. Penitentials are fantastic sources for those studying the Middle Ages, but proceed with caution: while many of the sins do give us a better idea of the ways in which common people could misbehave, it is impossible to say how often some of the sins came up (or how many were products of a bored monk’s imagination. See also marginalia, below).

With that disclaimer firmly in place, we are going to take a look at the Decretum of Burchard of Worms.

Apart from having the best name ever, Burchard served as the bishop of Worms from 1000 until his death in 1025. During his tenure, he wrote his Decretum, a massive twenty-book list of every sin conceivable to the medieval imagination, drawing on a combination of earlier penitentials and things actually heard in confession at that time. Some of the penitentials he used as sources dated back to the seventh century, and this may help to explain some of the stranger sins below.

wolf as monk

A wolf dressed as a monk. Why not?

The nineteenth book of Burchard’s Decretum has a section dealing in sickness of the soul, including magic, divination, and “women’s vices.” It is worth noting that many of the “diabolical practices” mentioned here could be forgiven with a fairly light penance, as opposed to the death sentences handed out like candy four hundred years later with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum. Many of these are framed as questions a priest would ask his penitent. I have included some of my favorites here, but if you want to read this in its entirety, you can also find it here.

As relevant art from these period is sadly limited, I have added some marginalia to our…erm…margins. Enjoy.

***

“Have you violated a grave, by which I mean, after you see someone buried have you gone at night, broken open the grave, and taken his clothes? If you have, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.”

I mean, not since college. Is that bad?

bunny“Have you refused to attend mass or prayers or to make an offering to a married priest, by which I mean have you not wished to confess your sins to him or receive the Body and Blood of the Lord from him because you thought he was a sinner? If you have done so, you should do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.”

That’s right. Married priest. At this point, priests were still allowed to marry or have concubines. Clerical marriage wasn’t condemned by the pope until Leo IX in 1049, but the ban didn’t take hold until well into the twelfth century after the Lateran councils in 1123 and 1139. The more you know!

“Have you tasted your husband’s semen in order to make his love for you burn greater through your diabolical deeds? If you have, you should do seven years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Okay, oral sex has magical properties. So far, so sensible. What next?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take their menstrual blood, mix it into food or drink, and give it to their men to eat or drink to make them love them more. If you have done this, you should do five years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

fish

That poor fish.

How’s that for a binding spell? If that doesn’t work:

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a live fish and put it in their vagina, keeping it there for a while until it is dead. Then they cook or roast it and give it to their husbands to eat, doing this in order to make men be more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Wait, what?

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They lie face down on the ground, uncover their buttocks, and tell someone to make bread on their naked buttocks. When they have cooked it, they give it to their husbands to eat. They do this to make them more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Bread…on my butt?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a man’s skull, burn it, and give it to their husbands to drink for health. If you have, you should do one year of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Who hasn’t? Next…

nude knight on a hobby horse

See what happens when you don’t have your burnt skull potion?

“Have you believed what many women turning back to Satan believe and assert to be true: you believe that in the stillness of a quiet night, with you gathered in your bed with your husband lying at your bosom, you are physically able to pass through closed doors and can travel across the span of the earth with others deceived by a similar error? And that you can kill baptized people redeemed by Christ’s blood without using visible weapons and then, after cooking their flesh, can eat it, and put straw, wood, or something like this in place of their hearts, and, though you have eaten them, you can bring them back to life and grant them a stay during which they can live? If you have believed this, you should do penance for forty days (that is, a quarantine) on bread and water with seven years of penance subsequently.”

Do any women believe that? Show of hands, please.

“Have you done what some adulterous women do? As soon as they find out that their lovers wish to take lawful wives, then they use some sort of evil art to extinguish the men’s sexual desire so that they are useless to their wives and unable to have intercourse with them. If you have done this or taught others to, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

baking magic butt bread

Baking some magic butt bread

Sure. Someone put a “spell” on you. Right.

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They take off their clothes and smear honey all over their naked body. With the honey on their body they roll themselves back and forth over wheat on a sheet spread on the ground. They carefully collect all the grains of wheat sticking to their moist body, put them in a mill, turn the mill in the opposite direction of the sun, grind the wheat into flour, and bake bread from it. Then they serve it to their husbands to eat, who then grow weak and die. If you have, you should do penance for forty days on bread and water.”

Is this a sin or a recipe? And hang on, only forty days for murdering a spouse with magic bread?

Also included under “women’s vices”, for some reason:

“Have you eaten any food from Jews or from other pagans which they prepared for you? If you have, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

BURCHARD. What. The. Heck? I guess there wasn’t a chapter for xenophobic culinary guidelines.

As batty as these sound, some of them are nevertheless revealing of superstitions and pagan rituals that had survived until the eleventh century through confessional literature, if not in real life. We do need to take these with a pinch of salt, however; while some of them could be indicative of real practice, others are just as likely to have been imagined or embellished by the monks painstakingly copying these manuscripts and doodling madness in the margins.

You can find this section translated here.

Jessica Cale