Catacomb Saints

About a month ago, I took a short bike tour in the Allgäu, starting in Ulm and going down to Rot and der Rot, where I gave a speech. Taking the bike on an IC train turned out to be pretty straightforward, as long as you reserve everything first. The landscape down there, at the border between Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, is idyllic: rolling hills, verdant meadows, cool deciduous forests, and fat, lazy cows and sheep everywhere. Perfect for biking: The hills are just high enough to add some variety to your ride, without being too intimidating.

The entire area is filled with baroque monasteries and churches. I usually find baroque churches a bit tedious: after a while, the hovering angels and ornate columns and rays of light remind me of a Mexican cab-driver's dashboard. So I was a bit surprised to find myself really liking the South German baroque on display. In the really fine churches, such as the spectacular Ottobeuren monastery church, the pleasure comes from the consummate skill on display. The sculptural groups — in particular, the Baptism of Jesus located above the pulpit — are minor masterpieces, as are the ceiling frescoes by Januarius Zick. Riotous blasts of juicy Counter-Reformation drama.

Ottobeuren Baptism of Christ Above Pulpit (Joseph Christian 1763)

Ottobeuren Main Altar
But there's also a charming, folk-art aspect to many of the churches. St. Verena, the monastery church at St. Norbert in Rot and der Rot, is a soothing blend of neoclassical columns and baroque ornamentation. It has paired groups of side-altars topped by ingenuous sculpture groups created by F.X .Feichtmayr II in the 1780s:

St. Verena Sculpture Group Moses and Copper Snake (F.X. Feichtmayr II 1779-86)

St. Verena Sculpture Group Crucifixion (Feichtmayr 1779-86)
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of these churches is the phenomenon of the so-called Catacomb Saints (Katakombenheiligen). Beginning in the 16th century, the catacombs under Rome were re-discovered. Someone had the ingenious idea of locating skeletons buried on or near Christian symbols (cross, monograms, lambs, martyrs' palms) and declaring them to be early Christian martyrs. The skeletons could then be sold to interested buyers, of whom there were many in Germany.

After arriving from Rome, the skeletons would then be draped in the most precious finery the local community could afford, and displayed in ornate glass-enclosed altars. Sometimes the skeletons are propped on pillows, holding martyrs' palms, sometimes they are standing up. The bones are usually held together in fine white gauze. To make them more life-like, the faithful might place wigs on them, or even entire reconstructed model faces. Nevertheless, their clothes are always made with cunningly-placed openings showing a shinbone here or a ribcage there, to make sure the faithful know they are seeing an entire skeleton. A few pictures:

St. Verena Reliquary Altar St. Domitia (Feichtmayr 1779-86)

St. Verena Detail of Head of St. Benedictus

Ottobeuren Reliquary Shrine St. Bonifacius

Ottobeuren Reliquary Shrine St. Bonifacius Detail of Head-1

It goes without saying that the attribution of entire life histories to these anonymous remains was almost always spurious. The practice was finally ended in 1860. Tour guides and brochures often gloss over them or ignore them entirely, as if they were faintly embarrassed by the whole charade.

I found them fascinating. The German artist HAP Grieshaber, known for his monumental woodcuts, was born in Rot an der Rot. As a child, he was also drawn to the catacomb saints, as his wife recalls:

He rode to Rot an der Rot. After a half-century he saw the place of his birth again…. There, Helmut Andreas Paul (HAP) had been born to Protestant parents. His first steps led to the monastery church, which was his playroom. Immediately, he found his childhood, and himself, again. Some visitors might have thought him very pious as they saw him on his knees in front of the side altars, to see everything from the perspective of a four-year-old, before his nose these glass cases* with their martyrs' relics, these macabre delights, whose ivory-shimmering bones are draped so richly in pearls, embroidery, sequins, and glimmering semi-precious stones. A skull blooms like a bouquet of roses, some were covered with plaster and painted to a doll-like sheen. Some hands held swords, and some had embroidered shoes over their delicate ankles. Grieshaber recognized everything once again. He remembered how he had felt as a child, and saw everything he had previously kept covered and hidden in his conscious life. And over him arched the round, figure-strewn heaven of the Baroque.

(source: Kirchenführer Pfarrkirche St. Verena, p. 27).

* The German word in the original is Petrellen. I couldn't find a translation anywhere. Little help?

3 thoughts on “Catacomb Saints

  1. According to Koepf/Binding’s Bildwörterbuch der Architektur there is such a thing as a pedrella – the German plural form would be Pedrellen. So maybe it’s a typo?

    “Altarstaffel, der auf der Mensa aufsitzende Sockel eines Altarretabels, oder des Schreins Flügelaltars, meist mit Malereien oder Bildwerken geschmückt oder als Reliquienbehälter.”

    English translation would be … pedrella.

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  2. I was aware that German congregations in earlier centuries habitually paid large sums of money for “relics” of questionable origin and propped them up in their churches, but I thought these were just objects from the possession of alleged saints or otherwise at least hidden in intransparent shrines. didn’t know and am quite taken aback that it took such a tacky form.

    Let us remember that the next time when the churchmen get on their high horses about respectful treatment of the dead …

    Ein menschlicher Leichnam ist weder eine Sache noch ein Kunstobjekt. In ihm tritt uns eine einmalige Person mit ihrer unverwechselbaren Geschichte gegenüber. […] Die Aufgabe, Tote zu beerdigen, zählt aus diesem Grund zu den Werken der
    Barmherzigkeit.

    Es gehe nicht an, den Leichnam des Menschen “in verkünstelter Weise” zur Schau zu stellen, sagte Mixa im Festgottesdienst im Dom. Das sei “radikales Fehlverhalten gegen den Menschen”, ebenso wie Abtreibung oder die Vernachlässigung alter Menschen.

    Die inszenierte Darstellung und zur Schau Stellung [sic!] von Verstorbenen, ihre willkürliche Verletzung durch eingeschnittene Schubladen oder das Häuten und Ausweiden ihrer Körper versagen den Toten den ihnen gebührenden Respekt. Stattdessen werden sie zu Gegenständen und Ausstellungsstücken.

    Die Kirchen seien darauf eingestellt, “irritierte Besucher” seelsorgerlich zu begleiten, sagte Sachau. Dies gelte insbesondere für Kinder und Jugendliche. Auch Ärzte und Kinderpsychologen hätten wiederholt vor schädlichen Langzeitfolgen der Ausstellung gewarnt.

    And so on …

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