Episode 134 – Part 2: 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: Paul, I’m thinking: you have a PhD in art history, so you’re a historian skilled in doing research. A lot of what you’re talking about isn’t just looking at something; it sounds like you had to do a lot of digging. Were the things you were talking about, the traditions and things, was this just passed down and the clergymen knew about it when you came to town, or did you have to go find original documents?

Paul: I had to go back to a lot of original source material. Obviously, a lot of this stuff is forgotten about now. I did a lot of digging. It was a good couple of years of very solid research, mostly in Germany. This is very obscure information, but it was rewarding information. When you do research like this, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle in getting all the pieces back into place. In the end, you never get all the pieces; you never wholly fill out the puzzle, but I feel like I did a good job of filling in about 98 percent of the puzzle of those skeletons.

Sharon: I’m sure you know more than anybody else on earth about this. For all of your books, you’ve done the photography. Were you into photography before this?

Paul: I had played around with photography a little bit before, but not professionally. When I did my first book, The Empire of Death, I actually didn’t want to do the photos for the book. I wanted someone else to do them because I wanted to be able to concentrate on the research, and I didn’t want to get too distracted by the photos. I wanted to walk into an old charnel house and be able to concentrate on understanding it as a space rather than immediately running in and looking it as a photographer. In the end, there was no one who could do the photos for me. There was no one who wanted to take that trip and get involved, so, I was forced into the position of doing it. In the end, by both doing the photos and researching them, I understood them all the better. It didn’t distract me; I think it actually helped me focus on them. 

After I had done that book, there was no question that I was going to do the photos for the rest of my books. I liked working that way. I did all the photos for Heavenly Bodies. Photographically it was a very hard task because a lot of them are in cases, so they can’t be removed from these glass cases without destroying a lot. It was very difficult, but again very rewarding. I’d like to think by doing it myself and really understanding it, it allowed me to get pictures that, to me, looked more sympathetic than clinical. It might be hard to explain that without looking at other people’s photos, but a lot of times, I felt that by taking the photos, I’d strive for a sense of personality because each of them had something to convey. I felt very close to them by the end of this work; maybe not close to them, but close to the people who once venerated them and those nuns who created them.

Sharon: I could understand how that would be. In the beginning, you were talking about how you got your PhD in art history and you were looking for the niche. How did you stumble on this death niche? 

Paul: I studied at UCLA. I was probably the Fox Mulder of the art history department. I was always the guy who, while everybody else was working on Rembrandt, I’d go off and do a seminar paper about wood cuts of werewolves or something like that. It was the things that were not considered high art and were not considered masterpieces. I was always into these things that were visual culture for common people and visual culture that had been pushed to the margins just because we consider it hokey or unseemly. I was always into that kind of stuff. I was not working on the death stuff while I was in grad school. That came later to me, when I was traveling around Europe and I understood this massive part of people’s lives that we had pushed out of the history books just because we were uncomfortable with it, and when I understood the incredibly important role it played in people’s spiritual lives to have these bones around. I do want to talk a little bit about the materials that went into the skeleton, if that’s O.K.

Sharon: Yes, please.

Paul: I think that’s important because people always ask me, “Are these real jewels or are these replicas?” They want to talk about the materials, and I think this can relate to your audience. In most cases, they are glass replicas rather than real rubies or things like that, but there’s a reason for that. When I say they are replicas, a lot of them think, “O.K., it must be cheap,” and it’s not. Nature provides what it provides, and it might not provide the materials we need in perfect shapes and sizes and patterns. So, if you were to decorate a skeleton just with real jewels found in nature, it would be very, very hard to match things up to get a perfect pattern and a perfect flow of material. That is a big part of the reason they were using glass replicas, but when I say glass replicas, I don’t mean cheap. I don’t mean going down to Hobby Lobby or Michael’s and buying junk like people would today. There were very few glass-blowers in Europe who could make presentation-quality replicas of real jewels. They were located in the Czech Republic, in Bohemia and in Venice, and they were very, very expensive. When I say replicas, I don’t mean cheap. If you look at the skeletons and you see these perfect patterns of similarly shaped jewels with a similar sheen to them, that’s because they’re replicas, but they would use replicas so they could complete a decorative pattern perfectly rather than relying on what nature could provide. 

A lot of them you’ll see are wearing what looked like wigs. Those wigs are super important. Those wigs are made of gold and silver wire. Talk about incredible expense. There was only one place in Europe that could make wire in the finest of hair, and it was in Lyon, France. They would have to get this wire made out of silver. The reason they would use this gold and silver wire, this metallic wire and precious metal, to make these wigs for them was because they wanted them to stand the test of time. Let’s say I got a nice wig made out of horsehair or something. That would be pretty durable. It’s still not going to last 300 years and hold its shape, is it? No way. But a wig made of coiled precious metal wire will stand the test of time, and it will maintain its shape for hundreds of years. That’s why a lot of them still have these perfect curls, because they’re made out of this incredibly expensive metal wire. These were really, really expensive productions to make. Even when they were made of replicas, they were incredibly expensive. 

One question I constantly got asked when the book came out—whenever I did a talk, someone would ask, “How much would this cost to make in modern terms?” I never came up with a satisfactory answer for that because it’s hard enough to say, “Well, today’s dollar versus dollars in 1950,” and that can be kind of deceiving. Now, let’s talk about today’s dollars versus guilder in 1612. You’re talking not just about converting currencies through a vast amount of time, you’re also talking about a different economic system. You’re talking about a system back then where you had incredibly rich people and everybody else was incredibly poor. Even if I said, “O.K., if you base it on such and such, maybe it costs $2 million to make,” that’s still incredibly deceptive because nowadays, over the course of your lifetime, an average person might make $2 million. Back then, an average person who’s out there picking carrots is going to make $2 million in a hundred lifetimes. So, these were extremely expensive even when they were replicas.

Sharon: I’m backtracking a little bit. Were they mixing real jewels with these glass jewels? Would the nuns send an order to the glassblower and say, “I need one this size”?

Paul: It could be. Some of them are real jewels. A lot of times, they might use a real jewel for an accent. A lot of them have pearls. Even the pearls are fake, but the pearls are faked to be the exact same size, because nature doesn’t provide pearls in equally identical sizes. But again, even the pearls that were fake were incredibly expensive to make because you had to start with a perfect, handmade glass jewel, then they had to make a covering for it to get the sheen of a pearl. They had to make the covering out of ground fish paste and paint over this ground fish paste to seal it so it would soak in. It was incredibly expensive. 

One advantage was when these skeletons came to town, they were a big deal and they were going to be venerated, so a lot of wealthy people wanted to be a part of them. You might have a local duchess or duke or local count or baron donate things for the skeleton. They might donate authentic jewelry; they might donate authentic jewels, and they might donate clothing, too. You’ll notice a lot of them aren’t just jeweled. A lot of them are jeweled, but they also have what looks like outfits on them. Those outfits were donated by local nobility, and then the nuns would tailor them to perfectly fit the skeletons and make cutouts to show the bone. It’s funny, because if you were into high fashion at the time, you would walk in and esteem these skeletons as wearing yesterday’s clothes. It would be like, “That guy’s a couple of years out of season,” because the nobility will donate fancy, expensive clothes for the skeleton’s use, but they’re not going to donate the clothes they just bought. They’re not going to donate their own clothes. If you were a real nitpicker and you were into high fashion at the time, if you had an eye for it, “Yeah, that look on that skeleton is really last year.” That also would help to flesh out—pardon the pun—the decoration of the skeleton, giving them some extra materials.

One other thing I think is very touching about these skeletons: a lot of them are wearing rings on their skeletal fingers. The rings often would be donated by the nuns when they were done. You mentioned the nuns, obviously, were very trustworthy and loved the skeletons. When they finished, before they put them on display, the nun had a special ring or a ring that was a family heirloom. She would donate it to the skeleton and put it on his finger. What the nuns donated, these rings, that became kind of their artist’s signature, even though the meaning of it is kind of opaque to us. That became their signature, by donating something to the skeleton that would be there when it went on display. 

Sharon: Could you tell there was a pattern? There are so many questions I can go through. When you talk about these rings as a signature, did you keep seeing the same ring over and over, or the did the ring have an initial?

Paul: While the nuns were donating their rings, each ring was unique. Those rings were often things that had been passed down their families, like family heirlooms, so each ring would be unique. I became good enough in looking at these skeletons that I was able to tell you the same people worked on this skeleton too. I could tell you that; it’s not that hard to tell. Your listeners who are really into jewelry, I’m sure they’ll know. It’s like, “O.K., when I see a wire bent that way and this done to fix it, I know who did that, because there are certain technical aspects that become signature moves.” There were certain convents in Europe that were particularly famous, that were well-known for doing handwork. They might work on several of them, so I was able to tell, “O.K., these people did this skeleton too,” or “Somebody from that convent worked on part of this one, but not all of it.” You could tell just by those signature, little things about the way they would wind the wire or the way they would set in the jewels.

Sharon: Did the nuns make the silver and gold wigs?

Paul: They would have to bend it. Not all of these were made by nuns. There were some. I should point that out in fairness to my gender. There were some that were done by men, but the vast majority was done by nuns. The most famous group that still exists is in Waldsassen Basilica in Germany. Waldsassen Basilica has 10 of these skeletons, and they are all on display in the church. It’s like the Sistine Chapel of jeweled skeletons. The vast majority of those 10—I think it’s eight of those 10—were all done by one guy who was a lay brother at the basilica who was also a professional jeweler and a smith. I mentioned some of them would also be in suits of armor instead of being jeweled. The ones that are armored, that armor was pretty much universally made for them by men. Smith work was men’s work.

Sharon: Wow! How many books have you written?

Paul: Four.

Sharon: Four books. I’m thinking about all the effort and research and photography that go into one book, let alone writing four of them. So, The Empire of Death, you finished it, and you had the photos you showed the commissioning editor. What more did you learn as you went along, besides the fact that there were skeletons, about the empire of death or the way we view death? Did you think, “I want to say more about this after The Empire of Death”?

Paul: The Empire of Death is really a history book, and it’s a history of charnel houses. It’s not one of these guides to the history of death. It is an art historical tome, and the genre of art is just art in bone. I started on The Empire of Death and then I wrote Heavenly Bodies, and then I wrote a book called Memento Mori, which was a more global exploration because I had been traveling around the world photographing skeletons and bones in ritual contexts. I’ve got to say it took me about 10 years of work to even truly understand what I mean when I use the word death. When you ask this question about what I learned, I learned a lot, but it was a very slow process. Death is the hardest thing for any of us to contemplate, and oftentimes the most troubling thing for any of us to contemplate. It took me a really long time to understand what lay underneath all that material I was working on. I was working on all this death material, but in the end, I think I came out with a better appreciation of it and understanding.

Sharon: Wow! Contemplating death, yes, that is a very difficult topic. We can imagine, but we can’t really know. You’re a member of the Order of the Good Death. What is that?

Paul: The Order of the Good Death is not some kind of heretical, worrisome order. It’s not some secret society. It’s just a group of scholars and researchers and artists who work on death material. It was founded by a famous mortician, as famous as a mortician could be, I guess I should say, by the name of Caitlin Doughty, who has three New York Times-bestselling books about the way we deal with death in our society. She put this together as a think tank or a group to bring together people who were working within society to broaden our perspectives on death. None of us are out there wanting to die, and we are all hot and bothered by the idea of passing away, but at the same time, we need an acceptance of it, a more positive attitude towards nature as a natural process. 

Sharon: Do you have to be invited? Can I get a membership card? How does that work?

Paul: No, there’s no membership card. There are no meetings. It’s funny because of the name. It intrigues people. The term “good death” is an old term. It just means to pass well, to pass with grace and to pass in a meaningful and positive way. That’s why she used that term. No, you can’t. You don’t fill out an application online, and there are no membership cards. There are no meetings. It’s a very informal group. It’s Caitlin’s thing. If she feels that someone is doing work that she thinks fits in with her basic objective of broadening our western perspectives of death, she would like that person to join.

Sharon: O.K., so she’s the one I have to talk to. Now, let me ask you this. Maybe I have the order wrong, but it looks like your most recent book was A Cat’s Tale. Is that correct? Do I have that right? 

Paul: Yeah, that book came out this past November. That was my last book. I switched from death to writing about cats.

Sharon: Why was that? That’s what I wanted to ask. It’s like, oh my gosh, is that the same person?

Paul: It’s the same person. Underlying all of it, there are some similarities. Cats also have been pushed to the margins of history. That’s a much longer discussion, but when you ask people about feline history or famous cats who are not internet stars, like famous cats from history, they’ll pretty much draw a blank. They’ll tell you, “They were big in ancient Egypt, right?” That’s about all they know. Of course, cats also have a great background in occult lore, so there are some similarities underlying the cat research and the death stuff. It’s just something I wanted to do. I felt that cats, if you read the book—and the book is not technically written by me. The book is technically written by my cat. It says “By Baba the Cat as told to me,” so I’m the transcriber as she reinterprets human history from the cat point of view and puts the cat back into its place. It was just something I wanted to do. 

If you or your audience find pictures from that book, they’ll realize something: that it’s also an illustrated book. My cat happens to be a supermodel. I had been messing around with those photo projects for a long time, making costumes for my cat because she’ll wear them; she’ll model and she’s good. I was making a Marie Antoinette costume for her and things like that, and these were amazing pictures. So, it’s like, “Well, I’ve got to do something with these pictures. Is there some way to put them into book form?” I thought at one point about doing a fashion guide for cats by my cat to show these looks, and then I was like, “No, wait a minute. Let’s do a real book, something that will mean something to people.” So, I came up with this idea of a feline history from the perspective of a cat. It’s really an emotional book, because cats have had a rough time. Yes, they were big in ancient Egypt. They were also a persecuted and hated animal at one time, and she pulls no punches. She tells you all the highs and all the lows and brings you up to the modern day and the place that cats hold in our lives. So, yes, that is by me. That was the last book. To be honest, from my perspective, being in collaboration with my cat, it’s actually my favorite.

Sharon: Say that again. 

Paul: It’s actually my favorite since it’s a collaboration with my cat. It’s basically a 200-page love letter to my cat.

Sharon: Did she like jewelry? That’s the most important question.

Paul: Well, there’s a lot of jewelry as you’ll see.

Sharon: O.K. What’s your next book then?

Paul: I would really like to write a history of pet cemeteries. 

Sharon: Oh, interesting.

Paul: That combines all of it, doesn’t it? Death stuff and the cat’s back into play. A history of pet cemeteries and famous animal memorials and the way we memorialize our animals. Pet cemeteries have a very interesting history. At this point, I probably know more about them than anyone in the world. I’ve photographed more of them than anyone in the world, too. I’ve gone all the way to New Zealand and Australia photographing animal graves. It’s a book I had actually started. I had all the research done, and I was going make that my fourth book. Then the idea for the cat book came along, and it’s like, “I’m going to sell a lot more copies of the cat book than I am a pet cemetery book in the end.” Think about this: if I mixed the order and did the cat book after, it would have a sticker on it that says, “New cat book by the guy who wrote the cemetery book that hardly anybody ever read,” or it can have a sticker on it that says, “A book about the history of pet cemeteries by this guy who wrote this famous cat book.” You know what I mean? I thought it might help to do the cat book first, so that was part of the thinking. Also I just really wanted to do this cat book at the time, because I love working with my cat. 

Sharon: It sounds like you have a good partnership. Paul, thank you so much for being with us today. Do you have a favorite place to buy your books? Do you want them to go on Amazon? Does it matter to you, or is it just what people want?

Paul: It doesn’t matter to me. On a human level, I always tell people, “Hey, if you can support a local independent store, that’s great. If you don’t want to, it doesn’t make any difference to me where people buy the books.” If they want to buy any of the books, I’m flattered. Thank you, but it doesn’t make any difference.

Sharon: Thank you so much for being with us today.

Paul: Thank you.

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Sharon Berman