NEW YORK – Books by art historians like Paul Koudounaris are usually about more than just works of art. The historical and social forces and individual lives that are responsible for the creation of objects that seize viewers’ attention make for fascinating stories. Sometimes they are cautionary tales about what humanity is forgetting or ignoring.
Given that Koudounaris was born and raised in Los Angeles, it is easy to imagine that his 2013 book, Heavenly Bodies, is about Hollywood actors and actresses. His 2011 book, The Empire of Death, which is about the Roman Catholic phenomenon of elaborate ossuaries – buildings that house human skeletal remains – provides another hint.
Heavenly Bodies is about “a group of skeletons taken from the Roman Catacombs in the 17th century and completely decorated with jewels by teams of nuns,” he told TNH.
Few remain. Most were removed or destroyed during the Enlightenment, but Koudounaris found the surviving examples and photographed them for the book.
It seems macabre today, he said, because modern man has distanced himself from death and its reminders, perhaps to our detriment.
Koudounaris earned a PhD in Art History from UCLA in 2004, with a specialty in Baroque-era Northern European Art required extensive knowledge of the religious upheaval in Europe at the time.
He explained to TNH that when Protestants emptied churches of their early Christian relics, typically mere bone fragments set into beautiful reliquaries, the leaders of the Catholic Counterreformation moved to replace them in a triumphal fashion.
The churches of Germany recovered by Rome were sent not fragments but entire skeletons of what were believed to be saints from the catacombs of Rome, and thus candidates for elaborate artistic treatment.
“They were decorated with jewels by teams of nuns and sent to Germany as full-bodied relics…they were propaganda devises and after the earlier relics were attacked by Protestants they were sent north as ‘bigger, better, stronger’ relics.
“The Catholic Church wanted to come up with more relics and really outstanding relics and around this time they were rediscovering catacombs in Rome,” he said. The skeletons dated to early Christian times and the period of persecutions. Since martyrs were considered to have died in a blessed state, the bones of martyrs were valuable.
Decorated with jewels, the message was “look at the glory that has been bestowed upon this person for the sacrifice they made and look at the glory that God reserves for you,” if they return to the Catholic Church. Vatican letters described them as weapons against the Protestants.
He noted that “A reliquary had always been a finely wrought decorated object, and now the relic became the reliquary.”
Among the things he has studied were chapels decorated with human bones. In Empire of Death he traced the practice back to monasteries in the Orthodox East, where monks were driven by practical necessity: as burial space ran out, more ancient departed had to be dug up and the bones transferred to a nearby charnel house. Only later did they become symbols of humility and a locus for contemplating mortality and inspired monks and mystics further west.
His immediate family history did not point him towards his unique field, but his great grandfather, a Greek of Egypt, was involved in the mummia trade, the once-flourishing market in ground up mummy dust that was a medical preparation and that men like Louis XIV snorted for its supposed rejuvenating effects – perhaps the most bizarre placebo ever invented.
His paternal grandparents’ roots are in Cyprus but they lived in Alexandria for a time until they left in the 1950s after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalist revolution made life for Greeks intolerable. His relatives told him of severe abuse.
Koudounaris’ family went first to Chicago – his father, Angelo, earned an engineering degree there and then moved to California during the Cold War to work during the boom years of the defense industry that had its own death dimension.
“Growing up I was interested in the normal things that kids are interest in Los Angeles,” said. He liked to draw and won awards for it, and his mother Fannie, whose roots are Armenian, thought he would become a fine artist.
“Eventually I got in to art history because I learned more by looking rather than talking.”
There are multiple levels of meaning to the objects he studies and he was drawn to 17th century Europe because “it was an age of incredible expansion, not of territory but of vision… a bourgeoning world that doors had just opened upon.”
Europe had not yet experienced its “Age of Reason,” and Koudounaris’ taste in art also included the fantastic.
“Growing up I was a fan of Hieronymus Bosch, a fan of all his weird, mystic stuff which is not a big surprise considering what I wound up writing about.” The 15th century Bosch did not fit into his PhD research but he always stuck in the mind of Koudounaris, who was also always interested in the 20th century surrealists.
And what painters imagined, the official Catholic Church created.
Koudounaris pointed out however that when 21st century minds look at earlier art “we really distort things. Bosch created religious images or moralizing allegories based on Christian teaching…They are so enigmatic” that many imagine there are subversive symbols built into them, but that is not likely the case. “All those Bosch paintings were owned by the King of Spain – no one’s more Catholic than that,” he said.
He felt there was a gap in scholarship. “This was once a huge part of visual culture, entailing interacting with death, and it had never been covered because our own relationship with the dead had changed so much in the past two centuries that we don’t want to think about them,” he said, adding that “We have ghettoized cemeteries and pushed them away.”
He recalls the elements in his life which led him to think about death, especially the passing of his grandfather when he was three or four. “It was my first encounter with death and I tried to speak with my mother about what I wanted on my tombstone but she didn’t want to talk about it.”
Koudounaris believes it is psychologically healthier for people to have more interaction with death. “Talking about death is now taboo,” and “when someone dies it’s considered a failing, their physical body had failed them, their physicians had failed,” or perhaps they failed to take good care of themselves.
He cited a group of urban planners who worked with psychologists. They decided that an ideal city should have cemeteries “close at hand with visible reminders of mortality.”
“Psychological studies have shown that when visible reminders of death are removed, we are more detached from accepting mortality, and we grow up with a greater fear of it.”
The original if unconscious function of Halloween may have been to address that fear in childhood. Koudounaris acknowledged a link between the activities of October 31 and the Dia de la Muerte –The Day of the Dead that is celebrated in Mexico and around the world on November 2.