Saint Corona and Saint Rosalia: Two Saints Invoked Against Pandemics

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Anthony van Dyck, Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo, oil on canvas (1624).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Great Plague, or Black Death, of the 14th century was one of the most lethal pandemics in human history.  The plague was believed to have entered Europe from the Crimean port of Kaffa (modern-day Feodosia) in 1346.[1]  From there, it spread to Constantinople, Sicily, Genoa, and Provence before infiltrating the rest of the continent.  The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History describes its initial progress as “like the advance of a prairie fire, destroying and inescapable.”[2]  Dispersed along well-worn trade routes, the Black Death killed nearly one-third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1352—an estimated 25 million people.[3]  In his book The Great Transition, Bruce Campbell observes that “[b]oth proportionately and absolutely it therefore probably ranks as the single greatest public health crisis in recorded European history.”[4]

The tragedy of the plague, however, did not conclude with this initial wave of fatalities.  The plague endured for another three hundred years, returning approximately every ten years to ravage European society anew.[5]  Dread of the plague manifested itself in a number of ways.  In art, for example, the danse macabre became a popular motif.  In these scenes personifications of death, frequently in the form of jaunty skeletons, escorted individuals from all stations in life to their graves.  In religion, special saints were invoked for their protection against the Black Death.  Chief among these were Saint Roch and Saint Edmund.  Saint Roch was often shown pointing at a bubo (a wound caused by the bubonic plague) in his leg and accompanied by a dog carrying a piece of bread.  Meanwhile, Saint Edmund, who was King of East Anglia, is frequently portrayed with a crown, an orb, a scepter, or arrows (his death involved a volley of arrows).  Other saints, however, were also believed to protect against pandemics and the plague.  The COVID-19 outbreak has renewed interest of some of these saints, two of whom are described below.

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Christian Jorhan, Heilige Rochus (Saint Roch) (detail), polychromed limewood (1760/1770).  Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremburg, Germany.  In this detail, Saint Roch points at a wound caused by bubonic plague clearly evident in his leg.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Saint Corona – Patron Saint of Lumberjacks . . . and Epidemics?

Saint Corona is believed to have been martyred in the second or third century in particularly gruesome fashion.  Tied between two bent palm trees, she was torn apart when the two trees were released.[6]  She later became a patron saint of lumberjacks.[7]  In 997, King Otto III translated Saint Corona’s relics to Aachen Cathedral where the relics remained, buried beneath a slab of stone in the cathedral’s floor, until the early 20th century.[8]  Around 1912, the relics were transferred to a reliquary shrine created by the famous Aachen goldsmith Bernhard Witte.[9]

Saint Corona

Master of the Palazzo Venezia Madonna, Saint Corona, tempera and gold on panel (c. 1350).  National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark.  Note the crown she holds in her left hand and the two palm leaves she holds in her right.  Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Experts from the cathedral’s treasury had been working to restore Saint Corona’s reliquary in preparation for an exhibition on goldsmithery when the novel coronavirus emerged last year.[10]  The pandemic has lent new relevance to Saint Corona, whom cathedral officials allege is also a protector against infectious diseases.  Some scholars, however, question Saint Corona’s historical association with pandemics and infectious diseases.[11]  Regardless, her name alone has earned her an inescapable connection with the COVID-19 outbreak.  Notably, the names of the saint and the coronavirus share the same Latin root, corona, which means crown.

Coronaviruses derive their name from the protein spikes that protrude from their surfaces; when viewed under a microscope, these spikes give the appearance of a crown.  Saint Corona’s name relates to a vision of crowns she had near the time of her death.  According to legend, Saint Corona comforted a Roman soldier—the future Saint Victor—who was being tortured for his faith.  The Roman Martyrology states, “As Corona . . . was proclaiming him happy for his fortitude in his sufferings, she saw two crowns falling from heaven, one for Victor, the other for herself.  She related this to all present and was torn to pieces between two trees; Victor was beheaded.”[12]  Saint Corona’s feast day is 14 May.

Aachen Cathedral - High Altar

High Altar of Aachen Cathedral, Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), Germany.  The relics of Saint Corona were interred beneath a black stone slab to the left of the high altar in 997.  The relics were later transferred to a golden reliquary designed by Bernhard Witte in the early 20th century.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Saint Rosalia – Protector Against the Plague

Another saint associated with pandemics has also been in the news lately.  On the eve of an exhibition celebrating its 150th anniversary, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has been forced to close its doors to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.  A centerpiece of its anniversary exhibition, “Making the Met: 1870-2020,” was to be a painting by Anthony van Dyck titled “Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo.”[13]

The painting, one of the first acquired by the museum after its founding, depicts Saint Rosalia ascending to heaven accompanied by a tumbled passel of cherubim.[14]  An article by Jason Farago in the New York Times notes that at first glance, the work could easily be confused for an Assumption of the Virgin due to the lack of visual clues clearly identifying its central figure as Rosalia rather than the Virgin Mary.[15]  Farago writes, “Unlike Peter with his keys or Catherine with her wheel, this little-known saint did not have a set of standard attributes until the plague struck.”[16]  The plague referenced was an outbreak of bubonic plague that beset Palermo in 1624.

Upon closer inspection, van Dyck’s painting does offer some clues to the saint’s identity.  Farago suggests van Dyck had to invent an iconography to identify Saint Rosalia, who was credited with ending the 1624 flare-up.[17]  One cherub, for example, bears a wreath of pink and white roses which it is preparing to place on Saint Rosalia’s head.  The roses are a reference to the saint’s name “Rosalia.”  Another cherub holds a more macabre emblem of the saint:  an umber brown cranium which the cherub grasps casually in its left hand.  The skull is Saint Rosalia’s, a reference to the saint’s relics, which were unearthed near Palermo during the outbreak of plague in the city.[18]

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Anthony van Dyck, Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo (detail), oil on canvas (1624).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

According to legend, a local Palmeritan woman was healed of the plague after praying fervently to Saint Rosalia.[19]  Later, the saint revealed the location of her bones to the woman in a dream.[20]  The bones were subsequently discovered in a cave on Mount Pellegrino near Palermo.[21]  Hagiographies of the saint suggest that Rosalia fled to Mount Pellegrino to avoid a marriage arranged for her by her father and that she changed caverns frequently, guided by an angel, to avoid discovery.[22]  In van Dyck’s painting, Mount Pellegrino is clearly visible in the background, as is the harbor of Palermo.

Today, the Festino di Santa Rosalia, which takes place in July, is one of the largest festivals in Italy.[23]  At present, however, it is still unclear whether the festival will proceed as planned as many Italians remain in quarantine.  Meanwhile, “Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo” also remains in quarantine amidst the coronavirus outbreak.  The Metropolitan Museum does not plan to reopen until July at the earliest.[24]


[1]  2 C.W. Previté-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History 847 (1952).

[2]  Id.

[3]  Id.; Bruce M. S. Campbell, The Great Transition 307 (2016).

[4]  Id.

[5]  Id., Previté-Orton, supra note 1, at 847.

[6]  “German Cathedral Dusts Off Relics of St Corona, Patron of Epidemics,” Reuters (Mar. 25, 2020), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-germany-saint-idUSKBN21C2PM.

[7]  Id.

[8]  Id.

[9]  Naomi Rea, “A German Cathedral Plans to Display Its Shrine to Saint Corona, Who It Says Is the Patron Saint of Epidemics,” Artnet (Mar. 27, 2020), https://news.artnet.com/art-world/aachen-cathedral-saint-corona-1817631.

[10]  Id.

[11]  E.g., id.

[12] Catholic Church, The Roman Martyrology 139-40 (revised ed., reprint 1916).

[13]  Jason Farago, “The Saint Who Stopped an Epidemic Is on Lockdown at the Met,” N.Y. Times (Mar. 26, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/26/arts/design/van-dyck-metropolitan-museum-virus.html.

[14]  Id.

[15]  Id.

[16]  Id.

[17]  Id.

[18]  Id.

[19]  Rosa Giorgi, Saints in Art 323 (Thomas Michael Hartmann trans., Stefano Zuffi ed., 2002).

[20]  Id.

[21]  Id.

[22]  Id.

[23]  Farago, supra note 13.

[24]  Id.

Saint Thomas Becket: Murder at Canterbury Cathedral

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Chasse with the Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket (detail), gilded copper with champlevé enamel (c. 1190).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In the introduction to his acclaimed play Becket, Jean Anouilh describes how he became inspired to write about his most famous protagonist, Saint Thomas Becket.  Unlike the zealous pilgrims of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales or the ardent knights of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Anouilh did not purposely set out in search of Becket.  Rather, he discovered Becket by happenstance—in the pages of a winsome old history book about the Norman Conquest. 

“I am not a serious man,” he freely admits.  “I wrote Becket by chance.”[1]  In his introduction, Anouilh recounts how he purchased Augustin Thierry’s The Conquest of England by the Normans from one of the many book sellers that line the Seine.[2]  “I did not expect to read this respectable work, which I assumed would be boring,” he explains.  “I bought it because it had a pretty green binding and I needed a spot of green on my shelves.”[3]

Anouilh returned home and was gently browsing its pages—he insists he is “well-mannered with old books”—when he happened on the story of Saint Thomas Becket.[4]  The story “might have [been] taken to be fiction,” he writes, “except that the bottom of the pages were jammed with references in Latin from the chronicles of the twelfth century.”[5]  Anouilh was “dazzled.”[6]  “I had expected to find a saint—I am always a trifle distrustful of saints, as I am of great theatre stars—and I found a man.”[7]

The Life of Thomas

According to the Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Thomas Becket was born in London on 21 December 1118, the Feast Day of Saint Thomas the Apostle.[8]  At the age of 21, Becket lost both his mother and father in short succession, and after working for several employers, Becket obtained a post in the household of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury.[9]  Theobald trusted and respected Becket, and in 1154, Theobald nominated Becket to become Archdeacon of Canterbury.[10]  A year later, King Henry II appointed Becket Chancellor of England.[11]

Saint Thomas Becket

Detail of Saint Thomas Becket, stained glass window, Canterbury Cathedral. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas and Henry II developed more than just a close professional relationship during Thomas’s Chancellorship.  As Butler explains, “their friendship was not confined to a common interest in affairs of state, and their personal relations at times of relaxation have been aptly described as ‘frolicsome.’”[12]  When Theobald died in 1161, Henry II told Thomas he intended to appoint him the new Archbishop of Canterbury.[13]  Becket was reluctant.  “Should God permit me to be archbishop of Canterbury,” he told the king, “I should soon lose your Majesty’s favour, and the affection with which you honour me would be changed into hatred.  For several things you do in prejudice of the rights of the Church make me fear you would require of me what I could not agree to . . . .”[14] 

The king remained undeterred, and on 23 May 1162, Becket’s election was confirmed.[15]  Many of Staunton’s biographers suggest that Becket underwent a genuine conversation following his elevation to Archbishop.[16]  Suddenly Becket, who had grown accustomed to wealth and luxury as Chancellor—his household apparently rivaled that of the king—exchanged the finery of his previous life for a simple black cassock, linen surplice, and sacerdotal stole, under which he wore a hair-shirt.[17]  More significantly, he wholly immersed himself in the life of an ascetic.  He regularly celebrated Mass at 9 o’clock in the morning, and at 10 o’clock distributed alms—which he had doubled—to the poor.  He cherished the “monastic regularity” of his new office, and he personally examined and selected candidates for holy orders.[18]

Thomas’s commitment to the Church would eventually bring him into open conflict with the king.  After a series clashes that pitted the king’s secular power against Thomas’s authority as Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry II’s anger finally boiled over when he learned that Thomas had excommunicated three bishops who had participated in his son’s coronation.[19]  “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Henry raged.  Four knights interpreted the king’s appeal as a call to action, and they hastened to Canterbury in search of Thomas. 

Death Comes for the Archbishop

In the years immediately following Saint Thomas Becket’s death, a number of Vitae detailing Becket’s life and death were written.  Though the exact number of works is unknown, the volume of biographical accounts produced was unusually high.  In his insightful book Thomas Becket and His Biographers, Michael Staunton suggests Becket’s popularity was due in large part to his compelling life story.  Staunton writes, “That so many people chose to write about him in the years immediately after his murder is due not only to the explosion of popular veneration in the early 1170s but to the fact that his life and death provided such rich biographical material.”[20]  Thomas Becket and His Biographers examines ten such works, nine of which were written within seven years of Becket’s death. [21]

Five of Staunton’s chosen biographers actually witnessed Becket’s assassination, and their accounts are vivid.[22]  Staunton reminds us that while our familiarity with Becket’s story has “dimmed the shock of the event,” for Becket’s contemporaries, the event would have been far more visceral and alarming.[23]  After all, Becket was “the leader of the English Church at the height of his fame, murdered in his own cathedral by agents of the king in a place and time where such martyrs must have seemed an exotic reminder of a distant past.”[24]

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Reliquary Casket with Scenes from the Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket, gilded silver with niello and glass (1173-80).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The biographer known as Anonymous I provides one of the most concise accounts of Becket’s final moments.  After discovering Thomas in the cathedral at Canterbury, Henry’s knights confronted him.  Becket, sensing his impending death, “joined his hands and opened his eyes” before addressing his prospective executioner, the knight Reginald FitzUrse.[25]  “I commend myself to God and St Denis and St Aelfeah,” he told the knight.  At this, Reginald “approached and struck him powerfully from the side in the head, and cut off the top of his crown, and knocked off his cap.  The sword fell upon the left shoulder-blade, and cut all his clothes to nakedness.”  Then the knight William de Tracy “approached, and struck him with a great blow on the head; but still he did not fall.  The same William struck another powerful blow and at this the holy man fell prone on the pavement.”  The knight Richard le Bret then took a turn, striking Becket “as he lay on the pavement,” shattering his sword in the process.  Finally, the knight Hugh Mauclerk, “the most wicked of all men, approaching as he lay, put his foot on his neck and thrusting the point of the sword into his head spread his brains on the pavement, crying out and saying, ‘Let us go, the traitor is dead.’”[26]

Staunton notes that for some of Becket’s biographers, the act of scattering Becket’s brains on the cathedral floor was an outrage.[27]  John of Salisbury, for example, compares the knights unfavorably with Jesus’ executioners, who at least refrained from breaking Jesus’ legs when they realized he was already dead.[28]  In Edward Grim’s account, once Becket’s crown had been separated from his head, “the blood white from the brain, and the brain equally red from the blood, brightened the floor with the colors of the lily and rose, the Virgin and Mother, and the life and death of the confessor and martyr.”[29] 

In art, Saint Thomas Becket is sometimes portrayed with a bleeding head, signifying the first blow of his attackers.[30]  Becket’s other attributes in art are a long sword, representing the sword with which he was martyred, and the palm branch or martyrdom.[31]  In some cases, the sword is shown cleaving, or inserted in, the saint’s head.  The presence of a bishop’s mitre also helps identify him.

Pilgrims’ Progress

Soon after the assassination, miracles were attributed to Becket’s intercession, and a cult quickly grew around the saint.  Staunton attributes the cult’s popularity to its versatility.  “One of the reasons for Thomas’s broad appeal as a saint is that he meant many different things to different people.  Each could take from his memory and his image what they sought, whether it was the miracle-worker, the martyr, the champion of the Church, or a combination of these.”[32]

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Gold Reliquary Pendant with Queen Margaret of Sicily Blessed by Bishop Reginald of Bath (1173-77).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  On the opposite side, the pendant used to contain a crystal under which a number of relics were kept.  An inscription on the pendant indicates the relics included “blood of St. Thomas Martyr” as well as parts of his vestments stained with blood, including his cloak, belt, hood, shoe, and shirt.

The notoriety of the Becket’s death and reports of his miracle-working relics naturally attracted pilgrims to Canterbury.  Pilgrimages, though certainly not unique to Christianity, were a common form of religious expression in Medieval Europe.[33]  Christians regularly undertook these journeys to shrines and other holy places to fulfill vows, to seek cures, as penance, or merely to deepen their faith.[34]  Indeed, The Canterbury Tales begins with a paean to the religious pilgrimage: 

When the sweet showers of April fall and shoot
Down through the drought of March to pierce the root,
Bathing every vein in liquid power
From which there springs the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath . . .
Then people long to go on pilgrimages . . . .[35]

The text further hints that at least some of the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury are veterans of previous pilgrimages.  The Wife of Bath, for example, is described as having “thrice been to Jerusalem,” as well as “to Rome and also to Boulogne, / St James of Compostella and Cologne.”[36]  The Pardoner is portrayed has having sewn a “holy relic on his cap,” most likely a pilgrim’s badge commemorating an earlier trip to some holy site.[37]  Their tales and the tales of their fellow pilgrims unfold as they wend their way to Canterbury.

Saint James - Metropolitan Museum

Saint James the Greater, pine with paint and gilding, South German (1475-1500), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Saint James is depicted here with one of the earliest and most recognizable pilgrim’s badgesa scallop shellattached to his cap. Sea shells like this were associated with pilgrimages to Saint James’s shrine at Santiago de Compostela.

Once at Canterbury itself, a number of sites would have formed part of the pilgrimage experience.  As Paul Webster explains in The Cult of St. Thomas Becket in the Plantagenet World, key pilgrimage sites at Canterbury Cathedral included “the site of the martyrdom, the crypt tomb, the principal shrine itself, and the chapel known as the Corona, housing ‘Becket’s crown’, the shrine of that part of his head removed by his murderers.”[38] 

As at many medieval shrines, pilgrimage souvenirs, including pilgrim’s badges or ampullae, were available for purchase at Canterbury.  Most depicted scenes from Saint Thomas Becket’s life or death, or featured images from the cathedral itself.  Depictions of the saint’s assassination—scenes restless with fretful knights and drawn swords—were popular.  Renderings of the saint’s shrine were also common and help establish what the shrine might have looked like to a medieval visitor. 

A pilgrim’s badge in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York includes a representation of the shrine dating to the late 14th century.[39]  The jeweled shrine, ordered by Archbishop Thomas Langton and dedicated on 2 July 1220, rested above a golden tomb containing an effigy of Saint Thomas in ecclesiastical vestments; the effigy is clearly visible on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s pilgrim’s badge.[40]  The shrine itself was “encrusted with jewels on a trellis-like ground and surmounted by two ship models.”[41]  It also featured what was purportedly the largest ruby in the world, donated to Canterbury by the king of France in 1179.[42]  (Look closely and you may spy a small figure pointing directly at the famed ruby.)

Pilgrim's Badge

Pilgrim’s Badge of the Shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury, cast tin-lead alloy (1350-1400).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Conclusion

Following his elevation to Canterbury, Thomas Becket underwent a religious conversion, the sincerity of which has remained a subject of much speculation ever since.  Citing John of Salisbury, Stauton describes how some “deliberately misrepresented his behaviour, interpreting his zeal for justice as cruelty, his magnificence as pride, his pursuit of God’s will as arrogance, his protection of the Church’s rights as rashness.”[43]  Staunton further observes how Thomas’s character “seemed to feature a preponderance of traits which could be interpreted either way,” noting that “there is a thin line between bravery and foolhardiness, between constancy and stubbornness.”[44]

At the end of Anouilh’s Becket, King Henry is shown kneeling before Becket’s tomb, naked, as monks whip him with ropes.  The play, which is told in flashback, begins as it will conclude.  “Well, Thomas Becket, are you satisfied?” Henry exclaims.[45]  “I am naked at your tomb and your monks are coming to flog me.  What an end to our story!  You, rotting in this tomb, larded with my barons’ dagger thrusts, and I, naked, shivering in the draughts, and waiting like an idiot for those brutes to come thrash me.  Don’t you think we’d have done better to understand each other?”[46]

Understanding Saint Thomas Becket may, perhaps, have been too much to expect.


[1] Jean Anouilh, Becket at xvii (Lucienne Hill trans., 1960).
[2] Id.  The stalls Anouilh describes are still a familiar sight along the Seine, and many continue to sell curious and wonderful books.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] 4 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 629 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at 630.
[13] Id. at 631.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] See, e.g., id. at 631; Michael Staunton, Thomas Becket and His Biographers (2006).
[17] 4 Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 8, at 630-31.
[18] Id. at 631.
[19] Id. at 634-35.  The Archbishop of York, who performed the actual coronation, had usurped Canterbury’s right in conducting the coronation.  Id. at 634.
[20] Staunton, supra note 16, at 216.
[21] In particular, Thomas Becket and His Biographers describes the works of John of Salisbury, Edward Grim, William of Canterbury, William Fitzstephen, Guernes of Ponte-Ste-Maxence, Herbert of Bosham, Anonymous I, Anonymous II, Benedict of Peterborough, and Alan of Tewkesbury.  Staunton suggests that the various Vitae, or Lives of Thomas, “are not only exceptional witnesses to Thomas’s life and death and the events in which he was involved,” they are also “literary works of high quality, more complex and sophisticated than has always been recognized.”  Id. at 2.
[22] Id. at 184.
[23] Id.
[24] Id.
[25] Id. at 195.
[26] Id.
[27] Id. at 198.
[28] Id.
[29] Id.  Notably, Edward Grim was standing next to Becket during the attack, and his arm was nearly severed by the blow that cleft the top of the saint’s head.  In Grim’s own account, he identifies the first blow to Saint Thomas Becket’s head as the “same blow [that] almost cut off the arm of this witness.”  Id. at 196.
[30] Rosa Giorgi, Saints in Art 354 (Thomas Michael Hartmann trans., Stefano Zuffi ed., 2002).
[31] Id. at 353.
[32] Staunton, supra note 16, at 216.
[33] Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, “Pilgrimage in Medieval Europe,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pilg/hd_pilg.htm.
[34] Id.
[35] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales 25 (Nevill Coghill trans., 1952) (1392).
[36] Id. at 37.
[37] Id. at 44
[38] The Cult of St Thomas Becket in the Plantagenet World, c. 1170-1220 (Paul Webster and Marie-Pierre Gelin eds., 2016).
[39] “Pilgrim’s Badge of the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/473470.
[40] Id.
[41] Id.
[42] Id.
[43] Staunton, supra note 16, at 216-17.
[44] Id. at 217
[45] Anouilh, supra note 1, at 1.
[46]  Id.

The Catacomb Saints: Bedazzled Skeletons of the Counter-Reformation

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Waldauf Chapel - Saint Catherine

Skeleton of Saint Catherine, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria.  Photo by Reliquarian.

The Work of the Dead

In the third century BCE, Diogenes the Cynic famously insisted that a corpse was mere matter, fundamentally profane and profoundly irrelevant.  To emphasize his point, Diogenes ordered that upon his death his own body should be tossed over the wall of the city and be left unburied.  His friends were stunned.  “What!” they replied.  “To the birds and beasts?”  “By no means,” he answered.  “Place my staff near me, that I may drive them away.”  “How can you do that, for you will not perceive them,” they responded.  “How am I then injured by being torn by those animals, if I have no sensation?” he rejoined.[1]

Josse Lieferinxe, Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken (1497-99), Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

Josse Lieferinxe, Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken (detail) (1497-99). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.  Photo by Reliquarian.

In The Work of the Dead:  A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, historian Thomas W. Laqueur explores an intriguing question:  Why do human beings care for the dead?[2]  Laqueur observes that Diogenes, with his “seemingly commonsense rejection of all that decency and custom prescribe,” made the case “against the pretensions of the dead body more uncompromisingly” than anyone else in the Western tradition.[3]  Laqueur further contends that “[i]f Diogenes had not existed, we would have had to invent him,” because “[w]e need someone to insist that the dead do not matter so that we can respond with reasons for why they do.”[4]  As Laqueur explains, “[t]he history of the work of the dead is a history of how they dwell in us—individually and communally.  It is a history of how we imagine them to be, how they give meaning to our lives, how they structure public spaces, politics, and time.  It is a history of the imagination, a history of how we invest the dead . . . with meaning.”[5]  In short, Laqueur writes, the dead “are a powerful category of the imagination,” and then as now, “the corpse is their token.”[6]

The Roman Catacombs

On 31 May 1578, laborers along the Via Salaria in Rome uncovered something mysterious in a nearby vineyard:  a dark, forbidding hole that disappeared deep into the earth.[7]  Further investigation revealed the hole to be the entrance to an ancient, subterranean cemetery known as the Coemeterium Jordanorum, or Jordanian Cemetery.[8]  The discovery of other ancient cemeteries soon followed.  Begun in the 1st century, these burial places were initially known as hypogaeum (a subterranean place) and later as coemeterium (a sleeping place).[9]  We, however, have come to know these Roman cemeteries by a different name:  the Roman Catacombs.

View of the Roman Forum.  Photo by Reliquarian.

The cemeteries of the Roman Catacombs are linked by a multitude of galleries that cross and recross each other to form a vast labyrinth beneath the city.  As J. Spencer Northcote and W. R. Brownlow explain in Roma Sotterranea, “The galleries are from two to four feet in width, and vary in height according to the nature of the rock in which they are dug.  The walls on both sides are pierced with horizontal niches, like shelves in a bookcase or berths in a steamer, and every niche once contained one or more dead bodies.”[10]  Note that the Roma Sotterranea, published in 1869, states the niches “once contained one or more bodies.”[11]  In 1578, the bodies were still there.

Skeleton of Abbot Konrad II (center) with the Bodies of Four Catacomb Saints, Collegiate Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

Skeleton of Abbot Konrad II (center) with the Bodies of Four Catacomb Saints, Collegiate Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria.  Photo by Reliquarian.

The Protestant Reformation

Holy relics were anathema to proponents of the Protestant Reformation.  In his Treatise on Relics, for example, John Calvin railed against the use of relics as objects of worship.[12]  Early Christians, he wrote, obeyed “the universal sentence, that all flesh is dust, and to dust it must return.”[13]  In contrast, later Christians disinterred the bodies of the faithful “in opposition to the command of God . . . in order to be glorified, when they ought to have remained in their places of repose awaiting the last judgment.”[14]

Protestant disdain for relics, however, was not limited to verbal expressions of disapprobation.  Throughout Protestant Europe, countless relics were also physically damaged or destroyed.[15]  Paul Koudounaris observes, “Not even the esteemed church fathers such as St Irenaeus were safe.”[16]  The saint’s “nearly 1,400-year-old remains in Lyons were burned and cast to the wind by Huguenots in 1562.”[17]

Relics of Catacomb Saints, Church of Saint Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria.

Relics of Catacomb Saints, North Wall, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria.  Photo by Reliquarian.

The Counter-Reformation

The Council of Trent, which met between 1545 and 1563, sought to address issues raised by Protestant reformers, including the preservation and veneration of holy relics.  Ultimately, the Council reaffirmed the significance of relics, declaring that “they who affirm that veneration and honour are not due to the relics of saints; or, that these, and other sacred monuments are uselessly honoured by the faithful . . . are wholly to be condemned.”[18]  However, acknowledging that relics had been the subject of much abuse in the past, the Council also introduced strict rules governing their visitation and authentication.[19]  For example, the Council declared that in the veneration of relics, “every superstition shall be removed [and] all filthy lucre be abolished.”[20]  The Council also required all new relics to be officially recognized before they could be offered for veneration.[21]

While the Council’s decision provided a doctrinal resolution to the relic debate, many churches now faced a more practical problem:  the Protestant Reformation had created a shortage of holy relics, particularly in areas close to Protestant regions.[22]  Given this scarcity, how would Rome meet the renewed demand for sacred relics?  Where would churches find new relics for devotional display?

The discovery of the Roman Catacombs seemed to provide a providential answer.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, oil on canvas (1863-883). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (detail), oil on canvas (1863-883). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

In his arresting book Heavenly Bodies:  Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, Paul Koudounaris notes that after their discovery in 1578, the dusky passageways of the catacombs became the focus of a “public obsession.”[23]  Koudounaris writes, “While no one was quite sure in the early years whose bones were down there, the consensus was that they must certainly be sacred because they dated from the blood-soaked days of state-sponsored persecutions.”[24]  In other words, it was believed the bones were those of early Christian martyrs.[25]

Soon, bones began to trickle northward as churches sought to replace relics lost during the Protestant Reformation with the bones of Katakombenheiligen or “catacomb saints.”[26]  These relics were officially authenticated, as required by the Council of Trent, although identification of could be tricky.  As Koudounaris explains, relic hunters first looked for funerary plaques identifying martyrs, but “[i]f the word ‘martyr’ was absent, a capital ‘M’ was considered sufficient as shorthand—although ‘M’ was also used in Roman times as an abbreviation for the name Marcus, memoria (memory), mensis (month) or manis (dead).”[27]  Similarly, the abbreviation sang, or simply sa, were believed to mean sanguis (blood).[28]  In the absence of written clues, symbols were used to decipher the graves of martyrs.  For example, the presence of a palm frond, long understood to be a symbol of martyrdom, could denote a martyr’s tomb.[29]  Alternatively, the presence of a phial or ampule was understood to mark the grave of a martyr because, it was believed, a sample of a martyr’s blood was commonly interred with the martyr’s body.[30]

Meanwhile martyrs lacking identifiable names were given new names in a process known as battezzati or “baptism.”[31]  Some were named after popular saints, such as Saint Boniface.  Others were named in Latin after virtues, such as Constantius for constancy, Clemens for clemency, or Innocens for innocent.

Relics of Saint Honoratus, Peterskirche, Munich Germany.

Relics of Saint Honoratus, Peterskirche, Munich Germany. The inscription on the reliquary reads, “Corpus S. Honorati, Martyris.” A second inscription on the side of the reliquary reads, “Hl. Honoratus aus den Katakomben.”  Photo by Reliquarian.

Recalled to Life

Churches treasured the relics they received from the catacombs, and they carefully prepared them for display in a manner befitting their stature.  Full skeletons were especially prized, although reconstructing them correctly could be difficult.  Koudounaris explains, “For extensive reconstruction, the bones would usually have to be sent to experts, most often to nuns who specialized in working with relics.”[32]  In addition to possessing the appropriate religious temperament to work with relics, these nuns also exhibited tremendous skill with textiles and the decorative arts.[33]

Once fully reconstructed, catacomb saints were lavishly decorated with gold, jewels, and sumptuous fabrics.  According to Smithsonian Magazine, the bones were frequently wrapped in a fine gauze to prevent dust from settling on the relics and to use as “a medium for attaching decorations.”[34]  Additionally, “[l]ocal nobles often donated personal garments, which the nuns would lovingly slip onto the corpse and then cut out peepholes so people could see the bones beneath.”[35]  In some cases, a nun would add her own ring to a skeleton’s finger as a personal touch.[36]

Saint Munditia, Peterskirche, Munich, Germany

Saint Munditia, Peterskirche, Munich, Germany.  Photo by Reliquarian.

The resulting displays were majestic, resplendent, regal—though a modern observer might describe them as creepy.  Some catacomb saints wear wax masks over their brittle skulls.  Others feature glass eyes or eye sockets beset with jewels.  Many gesture as if still animate, suspended for a moment in time.

The men and women whom the catacomb saints were meant to inspire, however, responded positively to these displays.  They credited the skeletons with protecting their communities and working miracles on their behalf.  Some named their children after them.[37]  And when they died, many wished to be buried near them.

Waldauf Chapel, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria. These skulls formed part of the collection of Florian Waldauf. Waldauf donated his collection to the church in 1501.

Waldauf Chapel, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria. These skulls formed part of the collection of Florian Waldauf. Waldauf donated his collection to the church in 1501.  Photo by Reliquarian.

Ultimately, caring for the catacomb saints—the “special dead” as Laqueur calls them—was “a sign of piety, of love, of affection, and of religious devotion.”[38]  It was “a mark of civility and decency:  exactly what Diogenes rejected.”[39]  Saint Augustine had said, “The bodies of the dead, and especially of the just and faithful, are not to be despised or cast aside.  The soul has used them as organs and vessels for all good work in a holy manner.”[40]  Buried for centuries before their discovery, the catacomb saints are proof that Diogenes was wrong, that dead bodies are not irrelevant, that the dead do matter.  The catacomb saints were triumphs of the imagination invested with extraordinary meaning.  And they were recalled to life just when the Church needed them most.

Waldauf Chapel - Saint Catherine 2

Relics of Saint Catherine, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria.  Photo by Reliquarian.


[1] Marcus Tullius Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (C.D. Yonge, trans, 1890), at 55-56.

[2] Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead:  A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (2015).

[3] Id. at 35.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 17.

[6] Id. at 79.

[7] Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead:  A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (2015).

[8] Id.

[9] J. Spencer Northcote and W. R. Brownlow, Roma Sotterranea (1869), at 29.  As the authors explain in their preface, the book was based largely on Giovanni De Rossi’s two-volume Roma Sotterranea (1864, 1867), various articles from the Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana, and other scholarly works and papers.

[10] Id. at 26-27.

[11] Id. (emphasis added).

[12] John Calvin, Treatise on Relics (Valerian Krasinski, trans., 2008), at 55.

[13] Id. (emphasis omitted).

[14] Id.

[15] See Koudounaris, supra note 7, at 30.  Koudounaris observes that Clavin’s followers “proved particularly destructive.  They sacked churches and ruined relics in large numbers, variously broken, discarded or set aflame.”  Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] The Council of Trent:  The Twenty-fifth Session (J. Waterworth, ed. and trans., 1848), at 234.

[19] Id. at 235-36.

[20] Id. at 235.  The Council also prohibited the visitation of relics “by any perverted into revellings and drunkenness.”  Id.

[21] Id.

[22] See Koudounaris, supra note 7, at 31.

[23] Id. at 33.

[24] Id.

[25] See, id.  Koudounaris states, “The relic hunters who descended into the catacombs . . . were specifically seeking the graves of martyrs.”  Id.

[26] Id.  Koudounaris cites a 1907 study of catacombs saints in Switzerland to provide a sense of the scale of the exhumations.  According to the study, Swiss churches alone possessed over 150 full skeletons and approximately 1,000 fragmentary collections of relics from the catacombs.  Id.

[27] Id. at 39.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id. at 45.

[31] Id.

[32] Id. at 63.

[33] Id.

[34] Rachel Nuwer, “Meet the Fantastically Bejeweled Skeletons of Catholicism’s Forgotten Martyrs,” Smithsonian Magazine, 1 October 2013, available at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/meet-the-fantastically-bejeweled-skeletons-of-catholicisms-forgotten-martyrs-284882/.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Nuwer, supra note 34.  Indeed in some cases, nearly half the children born in a town after the arrival of a catacomb saint would be named after the saint.  Id.

[38] Laqueur, supra note 2, at 41.

[39] Id.

[40] Id. (quoting Saint Augustine, De Cura Mortuum Gerenda, in Treatises on Marriage and Other Subjects (Roy J. Deferrari, ed., 1955) at 353).

Skull of a Catacomb Saint, Waldauf Chapel, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria

Skull of a Catacomb Saint, Waldauf Chapel, Pfarrkirche Sankt Nikolaus, Hall in Tirol, Austria