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.