When I was a baby, I was baptized Catholic. I don’t remember much of my actual education in that religion, though, because my family began moving away from that faith when I was still very young (which, from what I’m told, makes us “lapsed” Catholics– bell rung, book shut, and candle snuffed aside, you are a Catholic for life. Just a bad one).
For this reason, I was kind of surprised to discover… well. Bedazzled skeletons. I mean, yeah, I was a toddler and raised Catholic for all of maybe two years, but you’d think something like this might have been mentioned at some point.
Who did these bones belong to? The answer is the “Catacomb Saints”– bodies that were exhumed from the catacombs of Rome that dated back to within three hundred years of Christianity’s first emergence. Since Catholic churches over much of Europe had had their religious symbols and icons plundered during the Protestant reformation, these bones were viewed as a way to restore the Catholic populace’s flagging morale and re-stock churches with new icons. Some were full skeletons. Others were just a rib, a jaw, or a few bones.
While the images of the remains are striking and strangely beautiful, they do bring some questions to mind. How many of the skeletons are of actual Christian martyrs? Some of the bones likely belong to pagans and Jewish people– how many of them found themselves re-named, dressed up, and placed in a church? At which point does the veneration of religious icons like the “catacomb saints” cross the line into idolatry?