Chasing the catacomb saints: Irsee, Munich and the saints today

Over the last few decades, religious belief in Germany has slipped, but not to the extent seen in other Western European countries. The most recent report I could find with statistics on German belief suggests only a marginal increase in atheism in the country over the last thirty years. It was hard to know what churchgoers made of the ‘saints’ who rest in their churches (especially with my non-existent German), but it was very evident in many of the towns we visited that despite their age, the churches were still active in local life.

Kloster Irsee was our second stop on the journey, and is a former Benedictine Abbey that has been converted into a conference centre. The old monastery church remains in service with the parish, however, and sits imposingly within a very pretty little Bavarian town:

It’s a beautiful church, with a sense of space despite the ornate baroque decoration. I especially loved the locks on the doors, which worked smoothly despite looking like medieval props:

Inside the church we found the saints Faustus, Canditus, and an unnamed accomplice, who are all ready to jump valiantly into action should someone ever let them out of their glass cages:

One of my regrets about the visit to Irsee is that I haven’t really taken any photos that convey the grand positions from which Faustus and his mates look down upon you: they all gaze commandingly across the church at a height of about nine to ten feet. When you’re standing right in front of them, you’re looking directly at their feet, and have to raise your head to take them in fully.

We only saw one other church (in Switzerland) where a saint was positioned so dynamically, and I think I prefer it to the recumbent saints which were so popular elsewhere. I don’t know why different churches chose to position their saints so differently, and what the significance of any one position was, but the three saints at Irsee make a powerful and intimidating statement when you encounter them.

If you do visit Irsee, walk ten minutes across the town to Backerei Koneberg for a bagel. Extra points if you can find the pictureqsue pathway through the centre of the village which means that you avoid hiking along the road.

Onwards from Irsee to Munich, which probably hosts one of the easiest catacomb saints to visit, in the Church of St. Peter. It’s the oldest parish church in the city, and like all historic urban churches, it’s quite nice inside. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’d like to get a close look at their saints though, because they have locked all their precious relics behind bars.

Munditia (pictured above and below) is one of the best preserved saints we saw on the trip, potentially because of her prime location (she even had a personal collection box, which was not a courtesy extended to most of the other saints we saw).

Munditia’s glass box also comes with another skull cabinet on top. I’m unsure what the provenance of this skull is, but it’s quite something to look at:

Another catacomb saint on display (Honoratus) hasn’t quite been able to get himself into shape for the show, and languishes somewhat forgotten:

I was surprised by the prominence with which many of the catacomb saints were be displayed in the churches we visited. It’s generally accepted that these skeletons are (as I mentioned in my previous post) merely those of your average Roman, caught up in a bizarre posthumous drama. I was expecting that most churches would not give much space to their catacomb saints, either out of disinterest or embarrassment. Of course, thousands of skeletons were sent out across Europe, and not many are listed in Koudounaris’s book: I’m not sure what has happened to the rest. Yet in the churches that do display them, they take pride of place, staring imperiously down at you in Irsee and brightly bejewelled in Munich. At least for these skeletons, in a rather strange and roundabout manner, sanctification has really occurred. I’ll leave any philosophical conclusions as an exercise for the reader, and press on to my favourite part of the trip: the Alps, ski-lifts and Austria.