Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was taken in by the skeleton porn. Yep. I just said it. I have a fascination with skeletons. It's an addiction.
Seriously, though, my first thought, on hearing about this book was "how can I leverage this for a D&D campaign?" Yes, I was in it for the Liches.
But Paul Koudounaris has provided something here far better than glitzy photos of gaudy corpses. He has provided here a fascinating history of these artifacts and, more importantly, their effect on the people who hosted them. The primary focus here is on how the bejewelled saints came to be politico-religious tools in the German-speaking Counter-Reformation, their symbolism and status (people named their children after these dead saints, which gives an idea of the high regard they were held in), and how they fell out of favor and into disuse as the world of religion moved into the modern age and what this did to the feeling of community within a village that had hosted these relics, sometimes for centuries. This is social history with a shiny "pop" veneer, and it works very well. Reading this along with Norman Cohn's Pursuit of the Millenium could provide an interesting window on the subject of religious devotion in the Germanic countries during the Renaissance and Early Modern eras.
The little story of Alexander and Calepodius, whose jewels were stripped and whose skeletons were to be disposed of with the secularization of the nunnery at Unterzell, Germany in 1803, is amazing. A parish priest from a nearby village snuck in with conspirators and stole the bones. They were handed down, in secret, for generations over 102 years(!), then gifted to the city's church, where they are still preserved. What devotion! This is the sort of history that I like - the monumental (literally speaking) efforts which people undertook to show their dedication to a belief is commendable, even if you don't believe in the doctrine.
And besides . . . Liches!!!
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