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The Unknown Martyrs Who Became Catacomb Saints

Catacomb Saints

Relics of saint and holy people have always been an integral part of Christianity. There was a time when bones, skins, fingernails, severed heads and even entire bodies of saints were preserved and cherished by the populace. But when the Protestant Revolution gripped Europe in the early 16th century, thousands of these relics were destroyed. The iconoclastic behavior was the most fervent in Northern Europe, especially in Germany, where many Catholic churches were plundered, vandalized and outright destroyed. Decades later when the Catholics resurged in response to the Reformation violence, many of the churches sought to replace the sacred relics they lost. But where were they going to find more dead saints? A chance discovery in Rome provided the answer.

On May 31, 1578, laborers working at a vineyard along Via Salaria, an ancient road that ran across the width of Italy, discovered a passageway leading to a long-forgotten catacomb. Further investigation revealed several more subterranean cemeteries decked with thousands of skeletons. These catacombs were the burial sites from the earliest days of Christianity, dating from between the 1st and 5th centuries AD, when thousands were persecuted for practicing the outlawed religion. When the Catholic Church learned of the discovery, they realized that these skeletons belonged to some of the earliest Christian martyrs—which was the next best thing to saints.

Soon, bones from the catacombs began to trickle northward as churches sought to replace what was lost. These unknown Christian martyrs became known as the Katakombenheiligen, or the Catacomb Saints.

Catacomb Saints

Photo: Paul Koudounaris

The Council of Trent required that all relics must be officially authenticated. Since identification of the bodies were nearly impossible, relic hunters looked for funerary plaques that might identify the dead as martyrs. If the word “martyr” could not be found, capital “M” was considered good enough, although it could have meant any number of things from the initial of the person’s name to common inscriptions such as memoria (memory), mensis (month) or manis (dead). Similarly, the abbreviation sang, or simply sa, were taken to be short for sanguis (blood). In the absence of written clues, symbols were used to decipher the graves of martyrs—such as palm frond, or phial, or ampule. When the names of the martyrs could not be deciphered from the engravings, new names were bestowed upon them, such as Saint Boniface, Constantius and Clemens.

Most of these skeletons or parts of it, made their way to Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Every Catholic church, big or small, got hold of a couple of bones. Even wealthy families sought them for their private chapels. Guilds and fraternities pooled their resources to buy a martyr.

Once an institution acquired a skeleton, it was fantastically decorated with jewels and dressed in robes of velvet and silk, before putting up for display. Some catacomb saints wore wax masks over their brittle skulls. Others feature glass eyes or eye sockets beset with jewels.

By the late 18th century, the dubious origins of the skeletons became more widely known, and many churches stripped them off their status and locked the bones away in cellars. Today, only a handful of Catacomb Saints survive in their original state.

Catacomb Saints

Photo: Paul Koudounaris

Catacomb Saints

Photo: Paul Koudounaris

Catacomb Saints

Photo: Paul Koudounaris

Catacomb Saints

Photo: Paul Koudounaris

Catacomb Saints

Photo: Paul Koudounaris

References:
# Smithsonian, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/meet-the-fantastically-bejeweled-skeletons-of-catholicisms-forgotten-martyrs-284882/
# Reliquarian, https://reliquarian.com/2016/08/07/the-catacomb-saints-bedazzled-skeletons-of-the-counter-reformation/
# Paul Koudounaris, “Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs”, https://amzn.to/2XPama0

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