A pair of American tourists pause in surprise in the centre of the nave of the Church of Sts Peter and Paul in the small, rural Bavarian town of Rott-am-Inn. Their attention is fixed on a pair of beautifully jewelled, articulated skeletons in niches on the walls of the church, where one might normally expect to find side altars. Reposing inside glass cases, the bones are covered in a finely filigreed costume of golden leaves and precious stones, and jewels mark their mouths and eyes.
“Who are they?” one of the visitors inquires.
“I’m not sure about one of them,” their local guide explains, “but the other is Constantine the Great.”
“Constantine? The Roman Emperor?” asks the visitor, now visibly puzzled. “It seems… well, very unlikely that his skeleton would be in this church.”
“Well, this is what I’ve been told,” the guide sheepishly replies.
The identification of the skeleton in Rott-am-Inn as the Emperor Constantine is dubious, but he is only one of several such skeletons, usually found in small parochial churches in Germany and Switzerland, fully articulated and covered over with gold, silver, and gems. They represent a curious and largely forgotten piece of Catholic history from a time when clairvoyant priests would use their powers to ascertain the remains of saints and martyrs.
The trend for jewelled skeletons began in the late 16th century. The Roman catacombs, which had been abandoned as burial sites and largely forgotten about, were rediscovered in 1578 by vineyard workers. This coincided with the initial phase of the Counter-Reformation; the Council of Trent, called to formulate the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation, had just concluded, and one of the areas of concern was affirming the efficacy and belief in relics against attacks by their detractors. Since the remains in the catacombs dated from the second to fifth centuries AD, it was possible, with a bit of wishful thinking, for Church leaders to romanticise the bones as belonging to almost any famed early Christian saint or martyr. In the newfound cache they saw a potential tool to bolster their supply of relics and promote their power.
In reality, the bones could have belonged to anyone, since very few were provided with specific, identifying information – skeletons from the catacombs could, in fact, be pagan as easily as Christian. Papal secretaries were assigned to authenticate any potential relics, and the requirements were lax – frequently it was necessary only to find a palm on a coffin, or a bit of dried blood. Either was considered a sufficient emblem of a Christian martyr. More problematic was the issue of determining individual identities for the presumed holy personages. For that, a higher power was needed – psychic communion, involving clerical mediums who would descend into the catacombs and ascertain the identities of the skeletons. The practice continued until the mid-19th century, sometimes even involving the Pope himself, if he too had clairvoyant abilities.
Catholic chroniclers were somewhat loath to give specifics about the process of psychically communing with bones, but SI Mahoney, a former Catholic priest who later defected from the Church, left an 1836 account detailing the process. To augment the supply of relics, he explained, trips were periodically made to the catacombs, but no one had a clue as to the identity of the skeletons found there, or if they were even Christian. Thus, Mahoney recalls, Pope Gregory XVI would descend into the subterranean passages accompanied by a group of priests, invoke the Holy Ghost, and read a prayer, “by which Divine assistance, and directions from on high, is sought for the performance of this… solemn duty. The Pope then casts his eyes around the confused mass of mouldering skeletons, and, as the whim may take him, calls this the body of saint such-a-one, another, the body of ‘Virgin some-other-one’ – and so on, till he is warned by his attendants that enough are now baptized… to serve for the present occasion. The rotten bones are then carefully collected, and, having been sprinkled with holy water, are placed in a chest prepared for that purpose, and carried in procession to the Vatican.”
One problem with this method was that it often resulted in rather far-fetched identities. Constantine the Great, for example, died near the Gulf of Izmir in Turkey, and was buried in Constantinople – which makes it preposterous to identify him as a body from the Roman Catacombs. There was also the awkward issue of skeletons being divined as the relics of someone whose bones were already known to be in the possession of the Church. The Church of St Nicholas in Wil, Switzerland, for example, possesses the striking armoured and jewelled skeleton of the third-century martyr St Pancratius, taken from the catacombs in the 17th century. The relics of Pancratius, however, were already claimed to be housed in Rome, in a basilica that bore his name. Nonetheless, Pope Clement X and his staff confirmed the identity of the second skeleton as also being Pancratius, and it was shipped north without any comment about the inconsistency. Waldsassen, Germany, likewise received a duplicate martyr in 1688, a skeleton which was claimed to have spoken to a papal secretary and declared itself to be St Deodatus – even though in the case of this early Christian bishop there was not just one, but possibly two, competing skeletons already housed in Italian churches.
Churches, especially in the German-speaking Alps, overlooked the spurious nature of the authentication process and the issue of apparent dopplegängers, vying to obtain the sanctified skeletons, sometimes in mass quantities. The Diocese of Konstanz, where the skeleton of St Pancratius is located, accumulated 120 of them in the 17th and 18th centuries. Once acquired, the articulation and decoration of the bones was decided by the local church – and again, often involved mediumistic communion in order to divine the bones’ desired pose, and if they wished to be bejewelled. The remains of St Pancratius – or whomsoever he may have been – were sent north to St Gallen Monastery, where they were articulated by a team of nuns, who followed the then standard practice of praying over the bones until provided with the inspiration for a design. In this case, the skeleton was dressed as a soldier, and provided with a palm frond and sword as attributes (the armour itself was re-worked in 1777 by a goldsmith from Augsburg, but the relic retains the original design).
The most famous of all the artists who worked on such skeletons, Adalbart Eder at Waldsassen, was known for his ability to commune directly with the bones. The Basilica at Waldsassen possesses more jewelled skeletons than any church in Europe – a total of 10, lining the nave, as well as two large bust reliquaries on the altar – and these were all decorated during the 18th century by Eder, a Cistercian lay brother and skilled goldsmith. The last of these, the martyr Maximus, stumped Eder with its silence. According to local records, Eder, unable to communicate with it, was driven to the verge of despair in his inability to find an adequate posture for the skeleton. Called to supper, the frustrated artist informed the skeleton that he simply did not know what to do with it, and left his cell; when he returned, the skeleton had positioned itself.
Back in the Church of Sts Peter and Paul in Rott-am-Inn, the local guide acknowledges that the identification of their skeleton as Constantine the Great is unlikely. “I suppose we can’t really have any idea who he is, or who any of these jewelled bodies lining the walls of the churches are – they may have just been normal people.”
He pauses briefly, and then concludes: “But I know that, whoever they are, they do serve a beneficial purpose – having skeletons around at least makes the heavy metal kids think it’s cool to go to church.”
1 SI Mahoney: Six Years in the Monasteries of Italy, and Two Years in the Islands of the Mediterranean and in Asia Minor, New York, 1836, pp261–262.
2 Basilica San Pancratio, which still holds their own version of Pancratius’s remains.