By Sarah Corbett
Between the 16th and 19th century, by order of the Vatican thousands of ancient Roman corpses were exhumed from the catacombs of Rome.These skeletal remains were given fictitious names and were sent abroad as relics of saints.
Although it is unlikely that any of the corpses were of religious significance, the remains were decorated, bejewelled and dressed to represent a catholic saint.
Some of these adorned skeletons remained in churches others were purchased and even collected by wealthy families. Their collections were regarded as status symbol, in similar fashion to today’s purchases of personalised number plates!
Some “saints” were chosen as their name was that of their new owners. The skeletons were covered with precious jewels and finery dressed in expensive textiles, some wore wigs, armour and crowns. The dressing and adorning was carried out by nuns, in the mid 1500’s such skeletons were transported across the Alps to be adorned by craftswomen such as Potentiana Harmmerl, a nun from Freising. Potentiana is known to have adorned the relic which was named as St Albertus.
The relics were used in their new locations as conduits of prayers, and an example of the riches awaiting the faithful.
The residents of Porrentury in Switzerland were so distraught by the sale of two relics in 1803, that they rallied and fund raised to buy them back 174 years later.
A new book by Paul Koudounaris explores the history of these extraordinary relics