The dead have a message for us, and Paul Koudounaris knows it by heart: What we are, you will be; what you are, we once were.
The author of The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, Koudounaris visited 70 sites in nearly 20 countries over a five-year span. He’ll talk about what he discovered and learned on Tuesday evening – Valentine’s Day, ladies and gentlemen! – at the Redondo Beach Public Library.
“From the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries,” he writes, “European religious establishments, predominantly Catholic, undertook the construction of a series of decorated ossuaries and related works that stand as the masterpieces of art created from human bone.”
The vaults, catacombs or chapels, often decorated with hundreds or thousands or (in the case of subterranean Paris) millions of skulls and skeletal remains, are now considered by many to be morbid or inappropriate, which means that they are usually misunderstood. As Koudounaris says, they “were once part of a dialogue with death that has now fallen silent.”
In our era, we prettify the dead. I think it consoles us to imagine them as merely sleeping, and even to try and deny that death is simply a part of life. José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist whose Death with Interruptions brought Death into focus as a central, speaking character, addressed our mortality in one of his very last books, The Elephant’s Journey: “…such is life, the actors appear, then leave the stage, as is only fitting, it’s what usually and always will happen sooner or later, they say their part, then disappear through the door at the back, the one that opens onto the garden.”
We may pause as we descend into the vaults, but as Koudounaris then notes, “the corridors filled with the accumulated bones of generations past provide us with an opportunity to affirm life by embracing death.”
“Today me, tomorrow you” is another popular inscription, but not every reminder of what awaits us is so gently framed. As Miguel Mañara informs us from somewhere in the 17th century, “…consider the vile worms that will eat your body, and how ugly and abominable you will be in the grave, and how those eyes that are reading these words will be eaten by the earth, and how those hands will be devoured and left dry.”
The Empire of Death, published by Thames and Hudson, is thoroughly researched, intelligently written and never obtuse, and it also contains 290 illustrations, with 260 of these being photographs taken by the author.
How does one become so interested in charnel houses and ossuaries that several years are willingly devoted to finding out everything about them? Replying via e-mail while traveling in Germany, Paul Koudounaris answered these and other questions.
“I stumbled into the subject by accident, kind of literally,” he says. “I have a Ph.D. in Art History (from UCLA), and after I had finished that degree I was milling around in Eastern Europe, not entirely sure of my plans, when I went down the wrong staircase under a church in Melnik, Czech Republic, and stepped into a huge, marvelous, and extremely intricate bone-decorated crypt.
“The Czech Republic also has the world’s most famous ossuary, the so-called ‘bone church’ near Prague. If people have been to such a place, [it’s] 99 percent likely it’s that one (which is in Sedlec), and most people think it’s the only one of its kind.
“The ossuary in Melnik was different,” Koudounaris explains. “It was not a tourist trap,” bur rather “the exact opposite. I was down there for three hours without another soul – pun intended – coming in, and I found when inquiring about it that a lot of people in that town didn’t even know it was there.
“So it appealed to this kind of innate love I have for obscure things, but it also appealed to me on a more ‘professional’ level – meaning as someone with an advance degree in art history – because not only was the décor intricate, there was an iconography that was extremely sophisticated: There was a message there, and it was somewhat challenging to put it together in its entirety.
“Like most people,” Koudounaris continues, “I was aware of the ‘bone church’ and I had found it aesthetically fantastic, but the place in Melnik gave me a sense of a message I never got at the more famous site. After Melnik, I started wondering how many more places there were like this, basically forgotten. Since I am kind of macabre by nature I already knew of a few. But I wanted to know how many more Melniks there were, how many basically abandoned and forgotten charnels were sitting under the streets of the towns and villages I had been traveling through. The answer turned out to be a lot more than I could have imagined.”
We have post-modernism, they had post-mortem décor, and several of the photographs in the book remind me of what we see in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland – for example, the presumed skeleton of the third-century martyr, St. Pancratius, on display in Wil, Switzerland. Unlike some of the decayed or heavily damaged human remains, this saint is clad in fancy armor that was reworked by a goldsmith in 1777.
When asked which charnel house or ossuary he thinks is the “weirdest,” Koudounaris says that the Palermo catacombs “for me win hands down.” These are located in the crypt under the Capuchin monastery of Santa Maria della Pace in Sicily. “The ramshackle, skeletal mummies, lovingly attired and stuck to the walls, just defy everything we currently expect with the treatment of the dead.”
As Koudounaris writes in his book, “the site contains the most prodigious and elaborate collection of mummified remains in Europe,” and there is something both ghoulish and hauntingly sobering about them because, for the most part, they haven’t been entirely divested of their individuality.
In most of these bone repositories with their rows and rows or columns of skulls, one bonehead looks just like another, that is, you could be mistaken for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. “This is actually the point of a charnel being a memento mori,” Koudounaris tells me, “the idea that death is the great equalizer, and in death even the proudest are humbled and we are all the same.”
Lined up on shelves, one ostrich egg cranium after another, we are brothers and sisters, fraternal twins all, kissing the butts of our friends and enemies alike as they in turn kiss ours.
There are other strikingly visual sights as well, such as the black sleds used to transport the dead, suspended from the wall in the loggia of the oratory of Sant’Anna in Poschiavo, Switzerland. In some instances there are skulls in little slant-roofed boxes, which look a lot like doghouses with a skull peering out from just inside.
There are painted skulls in the ossuary of the Chapel of St. Michael in Hallstatt, Austria, but the practice of painting skulls pretty much ceased by the mid-19th century because of “the wave of fantastic superstitions that had become associated with them.” For example, villagers would steal the skulls and sleep with them in hopes that winning lottery numbers would be revealed in dreams. Understandably, the church fathers weren’t too fond of this.
The overwhelming majority of the sites that Koudounaris visited and writes about are in northern Europe, but he also includes the memorial in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which holds the remains of 9,000 people, victims of the Killing Fields (courtesy of the Khmer Rouge). Also, in what clearly seems like an incident out of a García Márquez novel, there’s the tomb of Enrique Torres Belón in Peru, completed only in 1968, which contains over 2,000 skulls and 50 elongated skeletons. Magical Realism at its most vivid!
As for the most impressive charnel house, if miles and miles of subterranean passageways are deserving of the name, Koudounaris replies that it’s hard for him to choose: “If someone really wants to visit just one site and get a wow factor, I guess I would nominate the Paris catacombs. I hate that answer because I would prefer it to be some tiny, hidden gem of a place, but the truth regarding the Paris catacombs is that you simply can’t compete with the wow factor of the bones of six million people.”
Koudounaris also took the title of his book from the phrase at the entrance of the catacombs that greets the living: Stop! Here is the Empire of Death!
What is the biggest misperception we have today about these bone chapels?
“The thing people have the hardest time perceiving nowadays,” Koudounaris replies, “is the incredibly spiritual nature of such places. These were places intended to aid in salvation, so despite what we see now in them, ultimately they were places of hope and glory. Most people are so awed by the macabre aspect that they fixate on it and don’t truly understand how hope, beauty, and love could be involved.
“If they do understand that there was sincere religious content, they usually just consider it memento mori and figure that is explanation enough. It’s not. There is so much more involved and, as I said, it involves hope and salvation. Yes, they are macabre, but when you put them in their context they are profound far beyond that, and places which contain an incredible spirituality and beauty.”
Not realizing the spiritual nature of these buildings and their contents, or thinking that macabre negates any sense of the sacred, theft (of bone fragments, of loose teeth, etc.) and vandalism are ongoing problems. The ossuaries disappear in other ways also, destroyed or dismantled.
“Yes, a lot has been lost,” Koudounaris says. “That was another reason I was so compelled to write the book, on the one hand to preserve a record of them, and on the other to stimulate interest in them.”
Has this project altered your philosophy of life in any manner?
“Whatever spirituality I have has always been more innate, rather than defined by any specific doctrine. To answer that question, the best I can do is explain the feeling I always had when I was alone in a great charnel house.
“It was a feeling of both timelessness and connectivity,” Koudounaris explains. “Timeless, in the [sense that] there I was, alone, in silence, but not alone, and surrounded by so much of the past. I was in the present, staring at the past, and at the same time contemplating the future, because death will befall all of us. And connectivity because the charnels always impressed upon me the feeling that we are all part of a cycle – call it what you want, ashes to ashes and dust to dust if you like familiar terminology. But I always felt that I was touching upon a cycle which we are all part of, and whoever you are, whatever you believe, in the end we are all subject to this cycle and connected by it.”
As another popular maxim from ages past has phrased it: “Death closes the gates of time, and opens those of eternity.”
Paul Koudounaris discusses and signs The Empire of Death (copies will be available for sale), and gives a slide show as well, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday (Valentine’s Day) in the Redondo Beach Public Library, second floor meeting room, 303 N. Pacific Coast Hwy, Redondo Beach. (310) 318-0675 option 6.