Chasing the catacomb saints

In late 2015, a friend of mine discovered a book written by Paul Koudounaris titled Heavenly Bodies. The book describes a rather arcane and bizarre period in the history of the Catholic church, in which thousands of skeletons were exhumed from the catacombs of Rome, ‘certified’ as saints and sent to churches across Central Europe. The saints were to serve as a symbolic bulwark against the onslaught of Protestantism, and formed a defensive ring around Catholic heartlands in Southern Europe. The skeletons were lavishly decorated by the parishes that received them, before being placed prominently on display; possessing a catacomb saint was a matter of some prestige:

In his book, Koudounaris explores the history of the saints, from their origins in Rome to their unexpected afterlives scattered across Europe. My friend fell in love with Koudounaris’s photography, which has captured the intricate detail with which the saints were decorated before being placed on display. Regardless of your taste for morbid art, it’s hard to argue that the images are incredibly striking.

Most interesting to the two of us, however, was the fact that the back of the book contains an index of the locations where the catacomb saints can be found, from the grandeur of St. Peter’s Church in Munich to tiny parish churches in the Austrian Alps.

We decided to make a road trip of it. In early July 2016, we left England on our way to Bavaria, to see whether we could find the catacomb saints for ourselves. Travelling 2000 miles over 10 days, we visited 9 churches across Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and found catacomb saints in 8 of them.

The following posts are a partly a historical study and partly a story of a road trip through central Europe. Importantly, we’re in debt to Koudounaris, who did most of the research which we used to plan our trip. If you intend to plan your own trip to visit the catacomb saints, I suggest you start with Heavenly Bodies. Our story, however, begins with a look at the Church of St. Michael in Krumbach.