The trend for bejewelled skeletons began in the late 16th century. The Roman catacombs, which had been abandoned as burial sites and largely forgotten about, were rediscovered in 1578 by vineyard workers. This discovery coincided with the initial phase of the Counter-Reformation.
The Council of Trent, called to formulate the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation, had just concluded; and one of the areas of concern was affirming the efficacy and belief in relics against attacks by their detractors.
Since the remains in the catacombs dated from the second to fifth centuries AD, it was possible, with a bit of wishful thinking, for Church leaders to romanticize the bones as belonging to almost any famed early Christian saint or martyr.
In the newfound cache they saw a potential tool to bolster their supply of relics and promote their power.
(Source: The Fortean Times, June 2011)
Resurrecting the Dead
‘On May 31, 1578, local vineyard workers discovered that a hollow along Rome’s Via Salaria, a road traversing the boot of Italy, led to a catacomb. The subterranean chamber proved to be full of countless skeletal remains, presumably dating back to the first three centuries following Christianity’s emergence, when thousands were persecuted for practicing the still-outlawed religion. An estimated 500,000 to 750,000 souls—mostly Christians but including some pagans and Jews—found a final resting place in the sprawling Roman catacombs.
For hundreds of skeletons, however, that resting place would prove anything but final. The Catholic Church quickly learned of the discovery and believed it was a godsend, since many of the skeletons must have belonged to early Christian martyrs. In Northern Europe—especially in Germany, where anti-Catholic sentiment was most fervent—Catholic churches had suffered from plunderers and vandals during the Protestant Revolution over the past several decades. Those churches’ sacred relics had largely been lost or destroyed. The newly discovered holy remains, however, could restock the shelves and restore the morale of those parishes that had been ransacked.
The holy bodies became wildly sought-after treasures. Every Catholic church, no matter how small, wanted to have at least one, if not ten. The skeletons allowed the churches to make a “grandiose statement,”…and were especially prized in southern Germany, the epicenter of “the battleground against the Protestants.”
Wealthy families sought them for their private chapels, and guilds and fraternities would sometimes pool their resources to adopt a martyr, who would become the patron of cloth-makers, for example…’
(Source: Paul Koudounaris, The Smithsonian Magazine; link to this article is provided below.)
Click the following link to read more about the skeletons, their being bejewelled, and their place as relics, revered by the Church even today…
See more of these fascinating relics in the photos below (click smaller images to enlarge)…
(Photographs: Morbid Anatomy Blogspot; Wiki; The Smithsonian Magazine)