A Beauty in Darkness: The Hidden Secrets of the Catacomb Saints
Death was always a source of mystery for people around the world. But what happens when we erase that invisible border and make the dead a thing to worship?
Never too far from every major turn of events, religion was always powerful, and never in search of followers. But every religion depends on faith, and faith had to be kept alive by any means possible.
That’s why today we’re touching upon one of history’s most macabre secrets. As if coming straight from a turn of the century horror movie, the mysterious and slightly frightening Catacomb Saints will not fail to raise the hairs on your back but will also leave you asking some quite taboo questions.
Death on display? Ancient mysteries and long forgotten burial chambers? The enigmatic Christian martyrs? The fascinating story of the Catacomb Saints has it all – and then some! Get ready to delve deep into the intrigues, mysteries, and the morbid veneration of long dead martyrs – as we uncover the dark secrets of religious worship.
Entombed: The Origins of the Catacomb Saints
The story of the Catacomb Saints takes us way back in time, all the way to the earliest beginnings of Christianity in Rome . We all know that the story of one of the world’s major religions had a very rough start. From their first steps, the followers of Christ suffered greatly. Persecutions, exile, martyrdoms, and pogroms – these were the sad and tumultuous characteristics of the first few centuries of Christianity.
But things change, the world’s great scene shifts and moves, and what once was persecuted – finally gets accepted. And so, Christianity became the state religion of Rome. In 380 AD, Emperor Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica, putting an end to the grim fate that Christians had to endure, and ushering the people of the city of Rome into a new era of religious worship.
As soon as the new religion was settled and became accepted, the pagan funerary practice of cremation became obsolete. People shifted their belief towards the story of resurrection, and pretty soon inhumation became the popular choice. Graves, sarcophagi, and elaborate tombs for the rich quickly took over, and the officials of Rome were running out of burial space.
That’s when the creation of large, sprawling and often complex catacombs began. These cavernous tunnel systems were no novelty – the Etruscans established them in times before Rome and that gave the citizens a basis to work from.
Catacombe di San Pancrazio under the basilica in Trastevere, Rome. ( Frankix / Adobe Stock)
Soon after, numerous separate catacombs were built, snaking their way beneath the streets of Rome, clandestine and brimming with mystery – and some of them stretching for as much as 12.5 miles (20 kilometers). And within them, silently sleeping beneath a city so full of life and earthly delights, lay the bodies of devout Christians, martyrs, and citizens, mute enigmas entombed for an eternity to come.
The Beeldenstorm: Europe’s Great Iconoclasm
Our macabre story takes a great leap forward and into 16th century Europe. Rome’s eerie catacombs are long forgotten and veiled in mystery, but the events that unfolded so many centuries later still gave them an important role to play.
Between 1522 and 1566, Europe was increasingly shaken by a series of attacks on the Catholic church – attacks that were the part of the infamous Protestant reformation . Centered in the Netherlands, these attacks, also known as the Great Iconoclasm, were led by riotous Calvinist Protestant crowds and they soon spread to other parts of Europe.
This Great Iconoclasm was a series of outbreaks that involved destruction of religious imagery of the Catholic church. The result of these riots was fatal for the artistic heritage of Catholic Christianity , with many precious pieces and relics being irretrievably lost.
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Destruction of religious images by the Reformed in Zurich, 1524. (Uploadalt / Public Domain )
Altar pieces, ancestral monuments, wayside crosses, and relics of saints were all targeted and seldom saved. In a span of a few years, the Catholic Church suffered a major blow both to its credibility and the strength of its following – and faith needed restoring.
Back from the Darkness: The Catacomb Saints
There is a power in macabre imagery, and what is more morbid and mysterious than long dead martyrs and ragged skeletons that exude an aura of times long forgotten? With the sudden loss of numerous relics and art pieces, Catholic officials decided to make use of the recent re-discoveries of Rome’s underground catacombs in 1578, creating a unique plan to reignite the shaken faith of its followers across Europe.
And so, in the decades following the Great Iconoclasm, Vatican officials systematically exhumed thousands of skeletons that laid entombed in Rome’s labyrinthine catacombs – sending them to towns and churches across Europe. These skeletons usually held no significance – they were the remains of Rome’s early Christian citizens, with only a handful being the possible remains of Christian martyrs.
Nevertheless, church officials went to great lengths to decorate these remains, covering them in the most expensive jewels, crowns, pearls, and gold and silver thread and, in a way, they created elaborate and rich art pieces – with an unmistakable macabre note.
Skeleton of the Catacomb Saint – St. Innocentius. (Neitram / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The enigma and the popularity of these new-found ‘saints’ quickly spread through Europe’s rich Catholic towns, and soon after every major city had its own mummified martyr. Saints and martyrs like Demetrius, Pancras, Vibiana, Saturninus, Verena, Munditia, and Honoratus, quickly became the proud relics of towns in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland – even though they were the remains of mostly unknown and ordinary people. Some of these were even duplicated, with different towns having the remains of the same ‘saint’.
But people often depend on faith – and a good story full of mystery is always easy to believe in. With a bit of carefully guarded secrecy, the Catholic Church managed to strengthen the faith of its flock across Europe and give new meaning to Rome’s ancient dead.
Defiant in Faith: Saint Pancras of Rome
One saint is particularly important for the story of the Catacomb Saints – a story full of early Christian enigma, and its iconic stubborn faith. That story is the one of Saint Pancras, a martyr of early Christianity whose alleged remains would have a wild journey that spans centuries.
Born in Phrygia around 289 AD, Pancras lost his parents at a young age, ending up in Rome under the care of his uncle. In this sprawling metropolis, Pancras became a devout Christian, his faith marked with extraordinary zeal.
And so, during the infamous persecutions of Christians under the rule of Diocletian in 303 AD, the fourteen year old Pancras was captured and ordered to perform a pagan sacrifice to the Roman gods . A devout Christian, Pancras declined and defiantly stood by his belief, even when showered with promises of gold and wealth. At last, as a result of his defiance and firm faith, Pancras was martyred – beheaded by Roman soldiers on the Via Aurelia.
His body ended up in the catacombs beneath Rome, and instead of being given up to eternal rest, it ended up having quite a journey. Today these remains rest in a manner atypical of an early Christian martyr, but Saint Pancras doesn’t appear to mind it – if indeed it is him after all.
The Armored Saints: One Final Vigil
Poised in a defiant and defensive stance, a majestically armored skeleton dominates the interior of the Church of St. Nicholas in Wil, Switzerland. The breath-taking display fascinates every onlooker – elaborately wrought silver armor filled with rich golden details, expertly cast emblems and fittings, a wealth of beauty. From behind the grim, helmeted skull a large golden halo spreads out in every direction, giving this armored saint a powerful and holy aura.
Posed Catacomb Saint – St. Pancras on exhibition in Wil, Switzerland. (Dbu / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
These are the alleged remains of Saint Pancras, which arrived to Switzerland in the 1600’s, in the aftermath of the Great Iconoclasm. The astonishing and elaborate manner in which it is displayed, makes this skeleton the most popular and easily recognizable of the Catacomb Saints.
But Pancras is not the only one to hold such a reputation – Germany, Switzerland, and Austria are dotted with remains attributed to great martyrs and saints such as St. Leontius, St. Deodatus, St. Maximus, St. Domitian, and hundreds of others – each one lavishly decorated; a mute mirror that reflects the wealthy and militaristic past of Catholicism.
In modern times, when secrecy is no longer easy to maintain and word got out that many of these saints are not so saintly after all, a large number of churches decided to destroy or no longer display these so-called Catacomb Saints. And so, the final leg of the journey for these mortal remains of Roman Christians , ended up in dusty basements and secluded storage – far from the prying eyes of the devotees.
Death and Mystery: Art for the Acquired Taste
Bejeweled and lavishly decorated, these relics are widely considered a unique form of Christian art. In an attempt to place an emphasis on the holiness of these ‘saints’, the Vatican officials went to dazzling lengths decorating them – almost all of these Catacomb Saints are covered head to heel in precious jewels and expensive clothes. Both the Church and the European nobility never lacked funds, so they didn’t hesitate to make certain that a single look upon the holy relics would start a fire in the hearts of those whose faith was wavering.
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Catacomb Saints were covered head to heel in precious jewels and expensive clothes by the Vatican. (DALIBRI / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
And in the process, they managed to create macabre art pieces , each one unique and fascinating. In recent years, the Catacomb Saints became popular once more, with many art photographers and authors, like Paul Koudounaris and Christian Boss, re-discovering these pieces and promoting a new form of ‘ dark tourism’ .
On the Edge: Sacrilege or Something Else?
For many Christians, the subject of the Catacomb Saints remains a source of argument and many deeper questions that regard piety and holiness. We get the chance to ask some crucial questions here – could it be that this ‘trading’ in mortal remains touched upon sacrilege?
In the 19th century, around the time when the authenticity of the relics came into question, a lot of people brought up the subject of simony - the act of selling church roles, offices, and relics. But the truth is that the church explicitly made sure to avoid simony, and instead the funds were raised by charging the buyers for the illustrious decoration, the transport, as well as induction and blessing.
Needless to say, that a lot of money was spent and earned on the Catacomb Saints, even though many of them were ordinary remains - a fact that was enough to anger some devout officials. In a way, the iconic spirit of piety and spirituality was broken by these heavily jeweled and gold covered skeletons, which often displayed the wealth of a particular town or the family that owned them.
Either way this truly macabre and unsettling form of worship, and some would say art, is enough to start us wondering about the true nature of faith. Are jewels and golden lace a part of Christian piety ? And should the revered dead be left to rest in peace? Try and answer these questions – it might not be so easy.
Does the macabre form of worship and heavily jeweled skeletons reflect the piety of the Catacomb Saints? (AndreasPraefcke / Public Domain )
Truth is, the Catacomb Saints are not the only such display of skeletons in the world. Partially preserved remains of the ancient dead have long been gawked at and earned from, so much so that it really begs the question of the importance of the sanctity of worldly remains. Many places are popular for vast collections of skeletons or mummies – the Paris Catacombs, Nazca mummies of Peru, the Fiesta de las Natitas in La Paz, Bolivia, the macabre Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic, and the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo – the list goes on.
But either way you look at it, the eerie story of the Catacomb Saints can give us a glimpse into an entirely new world of art – a mesmerizing mix of riches and death, a macabre symbiosis of two complete opposites. And without a doubt, this combination is unforgettable – a combination that comes so close to taboo and creates a morbid fascination that leaves us wanting more!
Top image: Catacomb Saint - Saint Gratian. Source: Xenophon / CC BY-SA 4.0 .
Early Church History. Date Unknown. Life in Ancient Rome & The Early Christians . [Online] Available at: www.earlychurchhistory.org
Empire de la Mort. Date Unknown. Online Resource for Charnel Houses and Burial Catacombs . [Online] Available at: www.empiredelamort.com
Koudounaris, P. 2013. Photo gallery: Extraordinary pictures of the catacomb ‘saints’ . The Catholic Herald. [Online] Available at:
Thereliquarian in Metal Reliquary. 2018. Saint Thomas Becket: Murder at Canterbury Cathedral . Reliquarian. [Online] Available at: www.reliquarian.com