Episode 134 – Part 1: Why the 17th Century Church Used Jewels to Entice New Members with Author and Photographer, Paul Koudounaris

Episode 134

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • What charnel houses and ossuaries are, and why they were an important part of people’s spiritual lives
  • Why the Catholic Church decorated hundreds of Roman skeletons with jewels in the 17th century
  • Why 17th century nuns were some of the most skilled yet unrecognized jewelers of their day
  • How art and jewelry can help us explore death and other touchy subjects

About Paul Koudounaris

Paul Koudounaris is an author and photographer based in Los Angeles. He holds a PhD in Art History from the University of California, and he has traveled around the world to document charnel houses, ossuaries, pet cemeteries, and other macabre subjects for both academic and popular journals. His books include The Empire of Death, Memento Mori, and Heavenly Bodies, which features the little-known skeletons taken from the Roman Catacombs in the seventeenth century and decorated with jewels by teams of nuns. His most recent book is A Cat’s Tale: A Journey Through Feline History.

Additional Resources:


Rorschach upper half, chest with skull 

Hergiswil stomach full shot

Weyarn head with problem here due to discoloration behind skull due to back lighting through stained glass window

Sonntagsberg felic chest detail

Bad Schussenried head and chest

Peterskirche munditia in shrine three problems, top over curtain over rope and weird candle


Today, covering a skeleton with jewels seems odd or downright morbid. In the 17th century, it was par for the course for the Catholic Church, which covered the skeletons of martyrs with jewels and lavish accessories to highlight the Church’s power. Author and photographer Paul Koudounaris has spent years researching and documenting these little-known historic treasures, which he detailed in his book Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how the skeletons (and human remains generally) were an important part of people’s spiritual lives; why nuns were responsible for decorating the jeweled skeletons; and why the Catholic Church’s efforts to honor martyrs didn’t exactly go as it intended. Read the episode transcript here. 

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Paul Koudounaris, who’s an art historian, photographer and author whose publications in the field of charnel houses and ossuary research have made him a well-known figure in these areas. Today, he’ll tell us about his fascinating work and what it has to do with jewelry. We’ll hear about his unusual jewelry journey today. Paul, welcome to the podcast.

Paul: Hi. I’m delighted to be here, and I’m delighted to talk about this topic from the perspective of jewelry.

Sharon: I was so interested to hear it. Tell us about your journey. Did you get into this field because of your doctoral studies in art? How did you get into it? I don’t know what charnel house means, and I didn’t want to look it up until I heard your definition.

Paul: Well, a charnel house is just a room full of bones. It’s from an old Latin word, “caro,” that meant flesh. It’s a flesh room, or it was literally a bone room. When they’d run out of room in cemeteries, they would put the bones and skulls in a separate room. They didn’t want to discard the bones of their relatives, but they needed room to bury more people. I started out studying that. Of course, that has nothing to do with jewelry, at least not at first, but it does have something to do with a PhD in history. 

When I finished the PhD, everyone likes to carve their own niche in life, and I was always interested in the macabre stuff. I was very familiar with the famous charnel houses, giant bone rooms, such as the Paris catacombs, which most people know about as big tourist attractions. As I traveled around Europe and looked in depth, I started to realize how many of these places there were that nobody knew about; that weren’t famous but were spectacular. I started to realize how these places, these great bone rooms that were constructed in the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries, had once been a very important part of people’s spiritual lives. We had pushed them into the cracks because we are so uncomfortable with the topic of death, and because the churches that administered them were oftentimes embarrassed to own these rooms full of bones because it just doesn’t play well in the modern world. So, I got started looking at those bone rooms. I wrote called a book called The Empire of Death that was designed to bring their meaning back into play for a modern audience.

Sharon: People must flock around you at cocktail parties. I’m thinking about them being so interested in what you have to say about this. Tell us about how the jewels come into play here.

Paul: I was finishing my book called Pyre of Death. It was literally about the bone rooms and the skeletons, the meaning of their décor and their place in people’s spiritual lives. When I was finishing that book, I found a topic that was even more spectacular, and it had me hooked. Sometimes in Italy, they would take me into these old bone rooms. A lot of times, they were closed off from the public, so I needed permission from the church. Before I would get into the bone rooms, sometimes I would find these old skeletons that had been put into storage that were completely covered in jewels, and this is where the jewelry angle comes in. They were never part of the bone rooms per se; they were the relics of saints, these whole-body skeletons completely covered over in jewels. I started getting into that, understanding what that was. We can talk about it because it has a very profound meaning in terms of religion. 

By the time I finished the first book, as it was coming out, I was in London at my publisher’s office. I had taken a picture of some of these skeletons, and I had put them on the commissioning editor’s desk. I pushed him the photos and said, “Here’s the next book,” and he looked at the photos and was like, “Yeah, O.K., that’s the next book. We’ll draw up a contract. What the hell is this?” It’s hard for your listeners to understand what I’m talking about. They might Google it. If they Google my name, Koudounaris—

Sharon: And we will have links to everything and photos on the website when we post this.

Paul: The book is called Heavenly Bodies. If they Google my name and the book, they would see pictures of what I’m talking about. They truly are spectacular. We’re talking about entire human skeletons, head to toe, completely covered in jewels. It was something utterly spectacular that has apparently been blotted out, pushed aside because of our own anxiety dealing with this kind of material in the modern age. That’s how the jewelry angle comes in.

Sharon: How did they decide which skeletons were going to be covered in jewelry?

Paul: The skeletons that were jeweled had nothing to do with the charnel houses themselves. The bone rooms were filled with people from the cemetery. The skeletons were something different. To understand why these were important, I need to talk a little bit about the historical background. I know since this is a jewelry show, people have different levels of awareness of religious history, so pardon me if some of this is a little rudimentary, but it’s very important in understanding this topic. 

I think we all know about the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, in the 16th century, takes the first breakaway group from the Catholic Church and other groups start to leave. The Catholics, who thought they were inviolable and didn’t think they could really be hurt by these Protestant break-away groups, by the time they take this seriously, they’ve lost about half of Europe and they have to respond. They have to produce something to bring people back in their church. The Protestant groups all had different viewpoints, but one thing the Protestants universally disliked was the Catholic practice of relics, relics being those little bits of bone or a lock of hair or some piece of a holy person that would be on display in a church. “Look, we have St. Peter’s fingernail.” The Protestants didn’t like that kind of stuff. First of all, they thought it was cultish or death-y. More importantly, they thought it was leading people into idolatry, because maybe someone’s praying to a fingerbone rather than praying to God. So, the Protestants go around and destroy the relics. When the Catholics decided to rebuild their church and try to bring people back in, they said, “Well, we need new relics, and they need to be spectacular. We need to show them.” The Catholics understood propaganda, and they understood that people respond to visual symbols more than they respond to abstract ideas. So, they said, “O.K., we’re going to rebuild the churches. We are going to bring in new relics, but relics that are so powerful, like nobody has ever seen before, that are really going to attract people.” And so they needed new relics.

Around this time, they rediscovered the catacombs of Rome, which were early Christian burial sites. They would send people down there to look for early Christian martyrs. Because they gave their lives for God, to the church, early Christian martyrs have a status about equivalent to a saint. They would take these skeletons of these early Christian martyrs from Rome and send them to northern Europe to the battleground areas where they thought they could win people back from the Protestants. Mostly that was in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Then they would cover them over completely in jewels, and they would put them on display in these newly re-founded churches as a citadel for people to say, “Look, this is the glory. This glory you see in earthly terms, a skeleton covered over in jewels, this is a reflection of the heavenly glory, the heavenly Jerusalem, that God promises to people who are true to the faith, who will fight for the faith, who fight to reestablish the truth faith, the Catholic Church, in the face of its adversaries, much like these martyred people once fought to found the faith against heathens and pagans of the world.”

Sharon: When they went back to find these early martyrs, did they have an X on them? How did they know? They just said, “This was a martyr”?

Paul: That’s the big problem. The Roman catacombs are famous for Christian burials, but other Romans were buried there too. You could do either of them; you could cremate or you could bury, your choice, and the Jews put their people in the catacombs, too. So, how do you go down into these 1,400, 1,500-year-old tunnels and figure out who in there is a Christian versus a Roman or a Jew, and who has actually been martyred? Of course, it’s very difficult. 

Again, as I said, the Catholics really understood propaganda. These people they were sending north, were they really Christian martyrs? They didn’t intend it as a total fraud. They looked for certain symbols. If there was a letter M on a gravestone, they thought, “O.K., well, if there’s a letter M, it might mean martyr.” Then again, the gravestones were often broken, so they might see an M, but it might have been part of a larger word. Maybe it was the word Mars; maybe it was someone who had dedicated their lives in the service of the god Mars. You really didn’t know, so a lot of it was guesswork. 

One of the things the Christians looked for were little vials that had been filled with blood. If there was a vial near the grave that had been filled with blood—or then, it had turned to a brown or a reddish dust—they decided, “That must be a martyr because there’s a little vial that had been filled with blood. It must be that person’s blood that was spilled at his martyrdom. This is definitely a martyr; take him out and send him north.” What they didn’t know is the Romans also had a funerary practice that is basically the backstory for us putting flowers on a grave. The Romans would sometimes put vials of perfume near a grave, and perfume over time can also turn into this brownish power. 

So, you’re asking how they knew. They really didn’t. A lot these people who were reborn as Christian saints may have been Roman fisherman, for all we know, and people would have been primed to venerate a fisherman. It’s a wild story historically. They would pull these skeletons out and rebaptize them. They’d call it batizati because they didn’t necessarily know who they were. The catacombs had been ransacked and they were not in good condition, so they’d pull these skeletons out and have a baptism. They’d rebaptize them and give them a name because they didn’t know who they were. A lot of these skeletons would have names like Felix. Tons of skeletons who were named Felix who were sent forth from these catacombs. Why Felix? Names like Felix or Clemente, names like that. Why? Because they sound like proper names, but they’re also the names of virtues. Felix is the base word for felicity meaning happiness. When they call a guy Felix and send him out, they’re saying, “We’re not really saying he’s a saint by the name of Felix or a martyr by the name of Felix; we’re saying he is the epitome of Christian happiness because he died for God.”

Now, as I said, this was a propaganda war that these jeweled skeletons were involved in, so when they get to Germany, people didn’t question, “Yeah, we have St. Felix here.” One of the most common skeletons to be sent out of the catacombs was St. Valentine. Why St. Valentine? The real St. Valentine has always been interred in Italy, but to make sure they were well received—because, again, this was propaganda to re-found the church. There is no Google to stop people from saying, “Oh, St. Valentine has just arrived in our town. Blessed be, we are graced by the God of love.” There’s no Google to say, “Wait a minute, this is horrible. Valentine’s interred in Italy.” They’re just going to accept it for what it is. You asked a good question: how did they know? They really didn’t, but these were tools to re-found a church. They were really jewels of war. These jeweled skeletons were tools of war in the battle against Protestantism. 

Sharon: You said you stumbled on this, but how come people didn’t know these were here?

Paul: They did a little bit. It would be unfair to say no one knew. They were still around. I think most of them—it’s another question you can asked: what happened to the bulk of them? A lot of them were destroyed, and a lot of them were destroyed for certain reasons. When they fell out of favor, people would rob the jewels from them and throw the skeletons away. I would say most of them, maybe two-thirds of them, have been destroyed, but a lot of them were still around; they were just only known by theologians or people who were really plugged into Catholic history in those places. When I was working in Germany photographing these, I was staying at a friend’s house in Stuttgart. Every day I would come back to her house, and she would sit me down at the table and say, “O.K., show me what other crazy things you found in my country that we don’t know about.” The bulk of Germans didn’t even know these skeletons were there, even though they had been a big part of spiritual life. 

There were several problems with those skeletons. First of all, I’ve already told you that a lot of them couldn’t be brought. When the Enlightenment came, they decided, “We need to get a lot of the superstition out of religion.” There were actual doctrines passed in Sumer that said, “O.K., we can’t have relics on display without a proven provenance, because we don’t want people praying in front of a Roman fisherman’s bone.” A lot of them were put into storage for that reason. A lot of them were simply removed by the churches and taken away because they didn’t want the modern church to be associated with a skeleton covered in jewels. It’s not a good look for the modern world. We have an incredible anxiety over death, plus the church gets accused of being a death cult, and what better proof would you have of a death cult than walking into a church and seeing a jeweled skeleton? 

A lot of them got pushed away in one very strange incident. There were some skeletons they felt bad about removing because it was such an important part of local history. They said, “Well, we want him out of our church. We don’t want this look anymore. We don’t want a jeweled skeleton in our church, but we don’t want to throw him away because he’s a part of local history and local lore.” So, they cut a hole in the wall. They shoved it in the wall and plastered the wall over, so he’s still technically in the church; he’s just literally inside the wall trapped in plaster. So, they got rid of them. 

It’s funny; times change, tastes change. For me, in writing this book, of course I had to get into the theological history, but it was more of an appreciation or reinterpreting them and saying, “O.K., these may have been failed religious items, and they may not have been the skeletons of the people they thought. They may not have been the Christian martyrs, but we can still appreciate them in the modern world as incredible works of art, the finest works of art in human bone that have ever been seen, and incredible works of jeweler’s art to cover them like that and make them so splendid. Let’s appreciate them in those respects.” A lot of people do love the photos, not for the death aspect or the theological aspect, but for the artistic aspect. 

Times do change. There’s one in a church in Switzerland. There was a variance to bejeweling them. Sometimes they would put them in suits of armor. If they thought it had been a military martyr, they’d put them in a suit of armor. This one has always been on display and they’ve never removed it. It’s still there in the modern church. I talked to the priest about it at the church in Switzerland; its name is St. Croesus. I was like, “Do you ever get any guff at the church for having this skeleton in armor there?” He was like, “It actually does us some good because the heavy metal kids think it’s really cool to come to church because there’s a skeleton in armor.” Times have changed.

Sharon: That’s really interesting. When you look at the photos in your book, Heavenly Bodies, it’s just amazing the jewels and how they decorated them. Talk about works of jewelers’ art, or any kind of art.  

Paul: I think one very important aspect of this is the people who did the work. That is another forgotten chapter in history along with the skeletons. People are often surprised when I tell them these skeletons were mostly decorated by nuns. They weren’t decorated by professional jewelers, and they weren’t decorated by big-name artists. They were decorated by teams of nuns. People are sometimes surprised when I say that, but we have to understand life in a convent at that time. Remember, a convent had to have an economy. It had to support itself, and all the money didn’t necessarily from donations. Nuns were very skilled in certain trades, what were then sometimes called women’s arts. They didn’t get the same respect as sculpture and painting, the kind of arts that have been traditionally patriarchal, but these nuns were skilled in what were called women’s arts, things like textile making, jewelry work, beadwork, wirework. 

Some of these nuns were probably the Michelangelo or Leonardo of working with jewelry at time; it’s just that we don’t know them because our history has always been a patriarchal view. Their names are signed to these skeletons, and they do incredible work. They would send skeletons undecorated up to Europe. The church would get them, and they would turn them over to teams of local nuns. The nuns might take years decorating them, a very costly process, a very time-consuming process, but nuns have the right religious temperament to deal with such an object, They can do it, they have a love for it, and very importantly, nuns had the technical and artistic skill to do this kind of jewelry work, to do this kind of textural work and to do it beautifully. That’s another really important of the story. It shows the incredible, high level of skill of these female artists that had been living in these convents to do this kind of work. 

Sharon: Also too, I assume that one would think they’re trustworthy and not be afraid that the jewels were going to disappear.

Paul: Oh, sure! Like I said, the nuns had the perfect temperament to deal with the sacred object, and the nuns obviously were not going to steal anything.

Sharon: Why were these jeweled skeletons in on display? Did people parade past them in the church? How did that work? Well, I guess they were underneath in the charnel house.

Paul: They were on display in the church. They were never stored in the charnel houses. That only came later when they removed them. They would set them into altars in big glass cases. It’s the reason that so many of them are posed. A lot of them are posed in a resting pose, full body laid out, almost like they’re waking from a sleep. The reason for that is the best place to put them was in the predella of an altar, right underneath the altar table. Of course, that’s a long, thin area. They would usually put them in there, so that explains why so many of them are in that resting pose. 

People would see them every time they walked into the church, but you asked about parades. When they were drilling them into the panel, the technical term for moving a relic is a translation. When they would translate the relics into town and bring them in the church, it was a religious holiday for the town. They would parade them in front of the entire town. Everybody would come out to meet their new patron saint. It was a very big event. Canons would shoot off, and there would be a military parade and an escort for them, and they’d set them into the church with much hoopla. These were very revered objects at the time, and many of the local churches would have special feast days in appreciation of the new saint that had come to them, this new, jeweled skeleton.

For instance, in one instance in Germany, a town did have a skeleton they called St. Valentine, so of course they all took him to be the god of love. So, every year on Valentine’s Feast Day, myriad couples and boyfriends and girlfriends would come and march and stand in front of this skeleton who, like I said, for all we know, might have been a Roman fisherman. But they’d stand in front of the skeleton they were calling St. Valentine, and they would renew their vows and renew their love for one another in front of the skeleton. The town had even commissioned an orchestral piece that would be played every year when people would stand in front of the skeleton and speak their vows. So yes, they were very much on public display and they were very much a big deal.

Sharon Berman