One cloudy day, when I felt sad and lonely I sought some peace and quiet in one of the churches. I like Catholic churches for their impressive artwork and knew the one I was going to had a baroque interior. I walked around and looked at all the paintings in beautiful pastel colours, the angels, the gilded decorations and the organ. I sat on one of the benches and was lost in thought for a while.
When I looked up, I spotted a curious looking altar in the northern nave. So I went there and met him, St. Maximianus. In the dim light I fought back a scream of terror. He looked perfectly like a mummy I had seen in a museum many years ago. Apart from the fancy decoration, of course. I could clearly see gauze where his face should be and gems where his eyes should be. The dress looks like some old fashioned ballroom dress of a rich lady, albeit rather dusty. I was bewildered and all of the worries I had come to the church with, were forgotten for the time being.
I began asking about the alleged mummy and it really took a while to uncover the story behind it. I actually even went back on a sunny day to see if my eyes hadn’t deceived me. And here is what I found out:
St. Maximianus was a Roman some 1600 to 1800 years ago. His body was laid to rest in one of the catacombs, underground chambers carved into the volcanic rock around the ancient city of Rome, by early Christians and other minorities who buried their dead instead of cremating them, like the Romans did.
When the Romans converted to Christianity, they began to bury their dead and the catacombs were forgotten – until the 16th century. A landslide uncovered a big cavern with bodies and people believed that those bodies belonged to martyrs and therefore saints. The deceased were named and transported to the Alpine regions. There, those saints from the catacombs were decorated and publicly displayed. People came to them with their worries and prayed, they considered them a spiritual presence.
You can still find some of them in Switzerland, Austria and Bavaria, where St. Maximianus has found his final resting place along with St. Calcidonius (below). These days those skeletons are regarded as obscure baroque interior design. Of course, it isn’t sure these people were martyrs.
Now, I understand what people were thinking. But still, I advocate unobtrusive warning signs at the entrance of churches with such eccentric displays. How about: This church displays skeletons. Don’t worry, we didn’t torture these people to death, no need to scream and bolt.
Sorry about the grainy photos.