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

Saint Innocent and the Massacre of the Innocents

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Rubens 1

Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents (detail), oil on panel (c. 1638), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

The Holy Innocents

The Massacre of the Innocents is sometimes invoked as an example of man’s potential for savagery and brutality in war.  In Henry V, for example, King Henry conjures the specter of Herod while addressing the governor and citizens of Harfleur, warning:

Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command; . . .
If not, why, in a moment look to see . . .
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.[1]

It should be remembered, however, that the Massacre of the Innocents was a calculated act, a politically motivated event, rather than a mere accident of war.  Its victims were helpless children, all under the age of two years.  According to the Golden Legend, the Holy Innocents, as they came to be called, were considered holy and innocent “by reason of their life, of the death they suffered, and of the innocence they attained.”[2]

Though mentioned only briefly in the Bible, the Holy Innocents were eventually bestowed their own feast day sometime during the late 4th to late 5th centuries.[3]  Also known as Innocents’ Day or Childermas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents was once a day of role reversals, akin to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, which placed children in authority over adults.  Today, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, celebrated on 28 December, is a day of pranking and general tomfoolery similar to April Fools’ Day in some parts of the world.  In the town of Ibi, Spain, for example, the festival of Els Enfarinats famously features a coup d’etat and a fierce battle of eggs and flour bombs that is waged throughout the town.

Who were the Holy Innocents, though, and why were they massacred in the first place?

Killing of the Innocents, stained glass, Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg, France.

Killing of the Innocents, stained glass, Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg, France

The Slaughter of the Innocents

The only Gospel writer who mentions the Massacre of the Innocents is Saint Matthew, who explains that Herod ordered the massacre after mysterious Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem inquiring about a newborn king.  “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” the Magi asked, somewhat indiscreetly.  “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”[4]

According to the Golden Legend, “Herod was troubled when he heard of this, fearing that someone might have been born of the true royal line and might expel him as a usurper of the throne.”[5]  Nevertheless, perceiving an opportunity to discover the whereabouts of his potential challenger, Herod feigned interest in worshipping the new king and slyly asked the Magi to bring him news once they had found him.  “Go and search carefully for the child,” he told them.  “As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”[6]  Herod had no intention of worshipping the child, however.  Rather, he intended to kill the newborn king, quite literally in his infancy.

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi (detail), tempera and oil on panel (c. 1478-1482), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi (detail), tempera and oil on panel (c. 1478-1482), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi returned home by another route.  According to the Golden Legend, when the Magi did not report back to him, Herod initially thought they had been deceived by the star and were too ashamed to face him with the news.  Herod subsequently gave up the search for the child.  Eventually, however, “when he heard what the shepherds had reported and what Simeon and Anna had prophesied, all his fears returned.”[7]

According to Saint Matthew, “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.  Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:  ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’”[8]

Courage and Callousness

In his study From Criminal to Courtier:  The Soldier in Netherlandish Art, 1550-1672, David Kunzle explains that the Massacre of the Innocents became an increasingly popular subject in art in the 13th and 14th centuries.[9]  Over time, two “non-biblical, legendary embellishments” crept into depictions of the event, altering the way the massacre was perceived.  The first, which lent “both realism and political edge” to such scenes, was the portrayal of mothers fiercely resisting the slaughter of their children.[10]  The second was the inclusion of Herod himself, callous and dispassionate amidst the carnage.

Works by artists such as Cornelius van Haarlem and Peter Paul Rubens attempt to portray some of the confusion, anguish, and brutality that surrounded the massacre.  In these depictions, the mothers of the Holy Innocents desperately interpose themselves between Herod’s soldiers and the helpless children of Bethlehem.  They claw at the soldiers, tearing their faces and gouging their eyes.  They frantically shield their children, but to no avail.  Pale, lifeless corpses already litter the landscape.

Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents (detail), oil on panel (c. 1638), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents (detail), oil on panel (c. 1638), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

Kunzle notes that though not mentioned in the Bible, the resistance of the mothers “is surely as natural as the grief.”[11]  He further comments that their resistance may have been an “indictment of those unnatural mothers who instead of trying to protect their children like the mothers of Bethlehem . . .  abandoned, killed or aborted them, crimes increasingly common and increasingly severely punished in the 16th century, after being more or less winked at in earlier centuries.”[12]

In contrast, Herod is commonly portrayed as a cold, detached observer of the events.  Often, he is shown seated on a high throne,“ordaining the massacre.”[13]  The position, Kunzle argues, emphasizes Herod’s pride and arrogance.[14]  In Matteo di Giovanni di Bartolo’s The Massacre of the Innocents, for example, Herod is portrayed as a large figure with a crown, peering down from a throne from which he calmly directs the violence below.[15]  Sometimes, Herod is also depicted with counsellors, whose presence, Kunzle suggests, “gives the order to massacre the colour of a deliberate act of state rather than a furious personal impulse.”[16]  Herod has also been known to be accompanied by a pig.

Reliquary Shrine

Reliquary Shrine with Scenes from the Life of Christ (detail), champlevé enamel on copper (c. 13th century), Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland. At right, Herod sits enthroned, his arm raised, while the devil whispers in his ear.

Herod’s Pig

“Those who kill, get killed,” Kunzle tells us.[17]  “Killers of sons get killed by sons.”[18]  Unsurprisingly, then, Herod’s barbarous order did not go unpunished.  We learn from the Golden Legend that one of Herod’s infant sons had been “given to a woman in Bethlehem for nursing” and consequently was slain with the Holy Innocents during the massacre.[19]  On hearing this, the emperor August allegedly remarked, “I had rather be one of Herod’s pigs than sons.”[20]  Apparently, this comment inspired one 15th-century artist to insert a pig into a version of the Massacre of the Innocents.[21]  I am not aware of other such pigs loitering about similar depictions of the event, however.

The First Christian Martyrs

The Holy Innocents are considered the first Christian martyrs, and as martyrs, they are sometimes shown holding palm branches, a common symbol of martyrdom.[22]  It is unclear, though, how many children may actually have been killed in the massacre.  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “The Greek Liturgy asserts that Herod killed 14,000, the Syrians speak of 64,000, [and] many medieval authors of 144,000,” a number apparently derived from the Book of Revelation.[23]  However, considering the parameters of Herod’s order—to kill “all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under”—the number of dead would likely have been far more modest than any of these estimates.  In her book Saints in Art, Rosa Giorgi suggests the number killed may have been around twenty.[24].  Giorgi notes that “images of this episode have traditionally been more focused on the atrocious violence and mothers’ anguish than the number of casualties.”[25]

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery (Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America), Washington, DC, USA

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery (Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America), Washington, DC, USA

The Relics of Saint Innocent

The Catholic Encyclopedia identifies a number of churches that purportedly possess relics of Holy Innocents.  These churches include the Abbey of Saint Justina (Abbazia di Santa Giustina) in Padua, Italy; Saint Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore) in Rome, Italy; Lisbon Cathedral (Sé de Lisboa) in Lisbon, Portugal; and Milan Cathedral (Duomo di Milano) in Milan, Italy.  The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls (Basilica Papale San Paolo fuori le Mura) in Rome also claims to possess relics of the Holy Innocents, and an apsidal mosaic in the church depicts five of the Holy Innocents as young boys, dressed in white, bearing palm branches.  A curious monastery in Washington, DC, also lays claim to a link to the Holy Innocents, though not through relics like those of the churches described above.

Descending into the fake catacombs of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, in the Brooklands neighborhood of Washington, DC, is slightly unsettling.  After shuffling down a set of stairs and under an arch labeled “Nazareth,” one first encounters a gleaming, marble replica of the shrine of the Annunciation in Nazareth before continuing into the “catacombs.”  The experience is perplexing, like drinking a German beer in the Germany Pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center.  Still, there is a certain allure to place.  It is air-conditioned and dust-free, and not particular creepy—until one happens on the body of a small boy, encased in glass, resting serenely on red silk cushions.

Saint Innocent, Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, Washington, DC

Relics of Saint Innocent, Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, Washington, DC

The boy is crowned with a golden wreath, above which hovers a golden halo.  His head is tilted slightly to the right and a gentle smile plays across his pale, waxen face.  He wears a white silken tunic, which is bejeweled around the neck, and a red ribbon hangs loosely about his waist.  His hands and feet are covered in golden gauze, and his left hand, crumpled loosely into a fist, rests atop his body cradling a palm branch.

Saint Innocent's hands are visible through the gauze covering his hands.  The palm frond tucked beneath his left hand is a symbol of martyrdom.

Saint Innocent’s hands are visible through the gauze covering his hands. The palm frond tucked beneath his left hand is a symbol of martyrdom.

The boy is Saint Innocent (Saint Innocentius), a boy no older than eight years, who was apparently killed during the Roman persecutions of the 2nd century.  Near his body, a sign explains that he was “buried in the Catacombs of St. Callistus for several centuries” before his relics were removed to a chapel in Hinsdale, Illinois, and then subsequently transferred to Washington, DC.  The sign further states that a phial of the boy’s blood, an indicator of martyrdom, was also found with the body along with an inscription that read “Innocentius in pace,” or “Innocent resting in peace.”  The phial found in the catacombs is now stored in the glass reliquary case with the saint’s body.  Lastly, the informational sign explains that “[w]hile the skull [of Saint Innocent] has been covered with a beautiful wig, the hands and feet are covered only with gold gauze, thus permitting the bones to be seen easily.”

Saint Innocent is not a Holy Innocent, but he serves as a representative of all those who, as the Golden Legend states, were “innocent in their lives and upright in faith.”[26]  Recognizing this symbolic connection, another sign above Saint Innocent’s reliquary reminds visitors that December 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day of remembrance of Christianity’s young, first martyrs.

Interior of the Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery (Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America), Washington, DC, USA

Interior of the Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery (Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America), Washington, DC, USA


[1]  William Shakespeare, Henry V, III, iii, 27-41.

[2]  Jacobus de Voragine, 1 The Golden Legend:  Readings on the Saints 56 (William Granger Ryan trans., 1993).

[3]  The feast is first mentioned in the Leonine Sacramentary of about 485.

[4]  Matthew 2:2.

[5]  Golden Legend, supra note 2, at 57.

[6]  Matthew 2:8.

[7]  Golden Legend, supra note 2, at 57.

[8]  Matthew 2:16-18.

[9]  David Kunzle, From Criminal to Courier:  The Soldier in Netherlandish Art 1550-1672 (2002), at 35.

[10]  Id.

[11]  Kunzle, supra note 9, at 46.

[12]  Id.

[13]  Id. at 38.

[14] Id. at 42.

[15]  Painted circa 1480-1490, the work is located at the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.

[16]  Kunzle, supra note 9, at 42.

[17]  Id. at 39.

[18]  Id.

[19]  Golden Legend, supra note 2, at 58.

[20]  Kunzle, supra note 9, at 40 (quoting Macrobius).  However, this quip may relate to a different event altogether.  The Golden Legend states Augustus made these remarks after learning that Herod had deliberately ordered the death of two of his sons.  In response, the Golden Legend quotes Augustus as saying, “I would rather be Herod’s swine than his son, because he spares his swine but kills his sons.”  Golden Legend, supra note 2, at 58.

[21]  Kunzle, supra note 9, at 40-41.

[22]  See, e.g., Albrecht Classen, Childhood in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance:  The Results of a Paradigm Shift in the History of Mentality 123 (2005) (“The Holy Innocents became the first Christian martyrs because of their chronological and geographical proximity to Christ and because they died in his stead.”); Rosa Giorgi, Saints in Art 167 (Stefano Zuffi ed. & Thomas Michael Hartmann trans., 2002).  In Ruben’s Massacre of the Innocents at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany, angels from heaven tumble to earth bearings crowns of martyrdom instead.

[23]  7 Catholic Encyclopedia 420 (Charles G. Herbermann et al., eds 1910).  The verse from Revelation cited in the text above reads, “And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders:  and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.”  Revelation 14:3.

[24] Giorgi, supra note 23, at 167.

[25]  Id.

[26]  Golden Legend, supra note 2, at 56.

Saint of the Salt Castle: Discovering Saint Rupert in Salzburg, Austria

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Statue of Saint Rupert (detail), Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint John the Baptist (Stiftskirche St. Peter und Johannes der Taüfer), Berchtesgaden, Austria

Statue of Saint Rupert (detail), Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint John the Baptist (Stiftskirche St. Peter und Johannes der Taüfer), Berchtesgaden, Germany

Salt of the Earth

In his wide-ranging history of salt, Salt:  A World History, Mark Kurlansky retells the story of a French princess who infuriated her father by declaring she loved him like salt.  “Only later,” Kurlansky writes, when the king “is denied salt does he realize its value and therefore the depth of his daughter’s love.”[1]  Because salt is “so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive,” Kurlansky explains, “we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”[2]  Salt was so precious, Roman soldiers were once paid an amount of money for the purchase of salt, known as a salarium — that is, a “salary.”[3]  Salt was also fundamental to the growth of several European cities, including the great city of Salzburg, Austria.  The name “Salzburg,” in fact, derives from the German word for salt (Salz) and the word for castle (Burg).

View of Hohensalzburg Castle from Mirabell Palace and Gardens, Salzburg, Austria

View of Hohensalzburg Castle from Mirabell Palace and Gardens, Salzburg, Austria

The rise and development of Salzburg, however, was far from inevitable.  By the 7th century, the city, then known as Juvavum, was in ruin following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the catastrophic breakdown of public infrastructure throughout the region.[4]  The work of an enterprising saint, and a little bit of salt, however, helped revive Salzburg’s fortunes.  The saint was Saint Rupert, first Bishop of Salzburg, whose likeness appears throughout the city and region to this day.  He is commonly portrayed carrying a vessel of salt, his traditional emblem in art — and an apt attribute for the patron saint of the Salt Castle.

Statue of Saint Rupert, Salzburg Cathedral, Salzburg, Austria

Statue of Saint Rupert, Salzburg Cathedral, Salzburg, Austria

Man of Salt

Who was Saint Rupert, and why is he so closely associated with Salzburg?  According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Saint Rupert was either a Frank or an Irishman who had once been Bishop of Worms.[5]  In approximately 697, Saint Rupert and several companions traveled to Regensburg to visit Duke Theodo of Bavaria, a powerful ruler “without whose permission nothing much could be done.”[6]  Saint Rupert eventually converted and baptized the duke, who afterwards became Saint Rupert’s patron.  With the duke’s support, Saint Rupert reestablished Christianity along the Danube, in an area stretching from Regensburg to Lorch.[7]

Instead of settling in either of these places, however, Saint Rupert chose to establish himself in the “old ruined town of Juvavum.”[8]  Juvavum contained a number of Roman-era buildings, though most were “dilapidated” and “overgrown with briars and brushwood.”[9].  The ancient town’s main advantage was its location in a prospering commercial area, in a region rich in salt.

Statue of Saint Rupert, Cemetery of Saint Sebastian, Salzburg, Austria

Statue of Saint Rupert, Cemetery of Saint Sebastian, Salzburg, Austria

Saint Rupert petitioned Duke Theodo for the territory of Juvavum, and the duke readily agreed.  Soon after, Saint Rupert erected the town’s first church, the Church of Saint Peter (Stiftskirche Sankt Peter), at the base of the Mönchberg.[10]  He also established the town’s first monastery and its first convent, Nonnberg Abbey, whose first abbess, Saint Erentrude, was Saint Rupert’s niece.

Part of Duke Theodo’s original donation included rich salt deposits, which were mined for their precious crystals.[11]  Saint Rupert is credited with establishing these first salt mines, which would become a source of the city’s great wealth and grandeur in later centuries.[12]  As the city prospered, wealth from salt mining enabled the arts to flourish.  Today, however, the influence of salt on the city’s growth and prosperity has been all but forgotten.  Instead, Salzburg is celebrated as an elegant city of music, the birthplace of Mozart and, more recently, the backdrop of the perennially popular movie The Sound of Music.

View of Salzburg from Festung Hohensalzburg.  Salzburg Cathedral, with green dome, is visible in the foreground, to the right.

View of Salzburg from Festung Hohensalzburg. Salzburg Cathedral, with its distinctive green dome, is visible near the center of the photograph.

Skeletons at the von Trapp Wedding

Located 17 miles east of Salzburg, in the charming lakeside town of Mondsee, Austria, the parish church of Saint Michael (Pfarrkirche St Michael), is the second largest church in Upper Austria.  Built in the late 15th century, the twin towers and pale yellow of the church’s exterior may strike some as vaguely familiar.  As it turns out, the church served as the setting of Fraulein Maria’s wedding to Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music.

Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

The interior of the church features striking vaulted ceilings, a riot of carved and painted figures, and various gilded Baroque altars, including five by the famed Swiss sculptor Meinrad Guggenbichler.[13]  The church also houses a number of relics, some of which make brief cameos in the wedding scene of The Sound of Music. The relics of Blessed Konrad II are the most notable.  Located directly above the tabernacle behind the high altar, the seated skeleton of Blessed Konrad II, a 12th century abbott of Mondsee, peers out from behind a glass enclosed niche.  The skeleton’s head is surrounded by a ray halo, and his left hand clutches a staff and palm frond, indicating a martyr’s death.  Apparently, Blessed Konrad II was killed defending his monastery, and his fellow monks believed his murder qualified him for martyrdom.[14]

Seven-Part Reliquary with the Relics of Blessed Konrad II of Mondsee, Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

Seven-Part Reliquary with the Relics of Blessed Konrad II of Mondsee, Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria

An array of other relics, carefully arranged in two large reliquary cases, are displayed to Blessed Konrad II’s right and left.  The relics include various skulls and bones first collected and displayed in the church in the mid-18th century.  Below the reliquary cases, four additional skeletons may be seen reclining in individual cases, two triangular and two rectangular.  The skeletons look relaxed in their padded niches and observe the world as if from window of a passing train.  The skeletons belong to catacomb saints exhumed and transported to Mondsee from the catacombs of Rome. The altar itself is a remarkable early Baroque work by the sculptor Hans Waldburger.  Dating to 1626, the altar features a depiction of Saint Michael the Archangel placidly slaying a dragon.  The altar is the only extant altar by Waldburger.[15]

Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria.  The high altar, which dates to 1626, is the work of Hans Waldburger.

Parish Church of Saint Michael, Mondsee, Austria. The high altar, which dates to 1626, is the work of Hans Waldburger.

Salzburg Cathedral

Saint Rupert died in 710, and is buried in the crypt of Salzburg Cathedral.  Consecrated to Saint Rupert and Saint Virgil in 774, the cathedral has been rebuilt and modified several times since its founding.  In 1167, for example, the Counts of Plain, knights loyal to the the emperor Barbarossa, set fire to the cathedral, burning it virtually to its foundation.[16]

Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

The cathedral was rebuilt, but burned again in 1598.  The subsequent rebuilding effort, led by Salzburg’s archbishop at the time, Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, outraged city residents who were shocked by Wolf Dietrich’s ruthless destruction of the cathedral’s cemetery, including the desecration of countless graves, for the rebuilding project.[17]  After Wolf Dietrich was captured and imprisoned by Bavarian troops in a dispute over salt mining rights, Wolf Dietrich’s successor, Markus Sittikus von Hohenems, commissioned a new architect to complete the cathedral’s reconstruction.

Interior of Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

Interior of Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

Reconsecrated in 1628, the new, Baroque cathedral remained virtually unchanged until 1944, when a bomb crashed through the dome, destroying part of the chancel.  After extensive renovations, the cathedral was consecrated a third time, in 1959.  The three gates to the cathedral commemorate the three consecrations by displaying the years “774,” “1628,” and “1959” in gold above the portals.[18]

Back to the Salt Mines

Although Saint Rupert does not hover above the tabernacle of Salzburg Cathedral like Blessed Konrad II in Mondsee, images of Saint Rupert throughout the church and city serve as a reminder of his role in the city’s early history.  As already noted, Saint Rupert is frequently shown carrying a vessel of salt, an acknowledgment of his influence on Salzburg’s salt trade.  The container of salt, however, may hint at another of Saint Rupert’s accomplishments.  In addition to establishing the city’s first salt mines, Saint Rupert was responsible for changing the city’s original name, Juvavum, to something more relevant and more enduring.  The name he chose, of course, was “Salzburg,” the Salt Castle.

High Altar, Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom) Salzburg, Austria

High Altar, Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom) Salzburg, Austria.  Saint Rupert is depicted atop the altar carrying a barrel of salt in his left hand and a bishop’s crozier in his right.  Saint Virgil is also represented atop the altar, opposite Saint Rupert.

Statue of Saint Rupert, Saint Andreas Parish Church, Berchtesgaden, Austria

Statue of Saint Rupert, Parish Church of Saint Andreas, Berchtesgaden, Germany

Interior of Dome, Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria

Interior of Dome, Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), Salzburg, Austria. The dome was pierced by an aerial bomb in WWII.  Repairs to the cathedral were not completed until 1959.


[1]  Mark Kurlansky, Salt:  A World History 6 (2002).

[2]  Id.

[3]  2 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 2653 (5th ed., 2002).

[4]  Juvavum was one of the principle towns of the Roman frontier province of Noricum.

[5]  1 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 700 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).

[6]  Id.

[7]  Id.

[8]  Id.

[9]  13 Catholic Encyclopedia 229 (Charles G. Herbermann et al., eds 1912).

[10]  Id. The church was established where Saint Maximus, a follower of Saint Severin, was martyred in 476.

[11]  Id.

[12]  Saleem H. Ali, Treasure of the Earth:  Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future 34 (2009).

[13]  John Bourke, Baroque Churches of Central Europe 266 (1958).

[14]  Blessed Konrad II of Mondsee, Saints.SPQN.com, available at http://saints.sqpn.com/blessed-konrad-ii-of-mondsee/.

[15]  10 Dictionary of German Biography 314 (Walther Killy et al., eds, 2006).

[16]  Salzburg Cathedral, Salzburg Travel Guide, http://www.salzburg.info/en.

[17]  Id.

[18]  Id.