Squelettes de martyrs vêtus de bijoux "Les Saints de catacombes"-RELICS

Skeletons of martyrs dressed in jewels"The Saints of the Catacombs"

The story of the saints in the catacombs of Northern Europe is a singular story. It has its origins in the crisis of faith that followed the Reformation and which caused people to return dramatically to decorative materialism in the practice of worship.

saint des catacombes

The jeweled skeletons were discovered in catacombs beneath Rome in 1578 and given as replacements to churches that had lost their relics of saints during the Reformation, under the belief that they were Christian martyrs. However, for the most part, their identity was unknown. The receiving churches would then spend years adding diamonds and gold vestments to the respectable skeletal strangers, going so far as to fill their eye sockets and sometimes decorate their teeth with adornments. However, when the Enlightenment arrived, they were rather humiliating due to the huge amount of money and luxury they symbolized, and many were hidden away or disappeared.

On May 31, 1578, wine workers in Rome discovered a passage leading to a vast network of long-forgotten catacombs beneath the Via Salaria. The Coemeterium Jordanorum (Jordanian Cemetery) and surrounding catacombs were early Christian burial sites, dating from the 1st to 5th centuries AD.


The Catholic Church had been fighting the Reformation for decades when these catacombs were discovered. Although some human remains have been venerated asrelics sacred for centuries*, Protestant reformers viewed the keeping of relics as idolatry. The bodies, even those of the saints, had to decompose into dust. Countless relics were buried, defaced, or destroyed during the Reformation.

Relics have long been popular with the laity, and the Counter-Reformation used as a strategy the sending ofrelics cool in German-speaking nations. They were to replace what had been lost, but where to find new Saints?


The bones themselves come from the rediscovery of the Roman catacombs around 1578. Over the following decades the underground catacombs were discovered, looted by grave robbers, and the bones, skeletons, collarbones and otherrelics victims were sold to various Catholic churches as relics of martyrs.

The hardworking and compassionate nuns associated with these churches were very accomplished ladies, and it was they who created the vestments for the catacomb bones (called in German katakombenheiligen) and set the precious and cut stones for adornment. Who knows to whom belonged the old bones thus adorned. The bones arrived from Rome in a box bearing the name of the saint killed.


They were unquestionably symbols of prestige. The skeletons bore Latin names and were covered in gold and diamonds from skull to metatarsus. Decorations varied, but were often very elaborate. The skeletons wore robes of velvet and silk embroidered with gold threads, and the gems were real or expensive imitations. Silver armor was even provided to a select few.


saint des catacombes

Saint Coronatus joined a convent in Heiligkreuztal, Germany in 1676 Shaylyn Esposito
Saint Coronatus joined a convent in Heiligkreuztal, Germany in 1676 Shaylyn Esposito
Considering the time, finance and commitment required to build the Saints, it is sad to contemplate the few that have survived to this day. During the 19th century, many were stripped of their jewels and hidden or destroyed, as they were deemed morbid and humiliating. Of all the catacomb saints that once filled Europe, only about ten percent remain, and few can be seen by the public.

To learn more about the Katakombenheiligen, be sure to consult Paul Koudounaris' book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.