The photographer Paul Koudounaris has made a name for himself by photographing the mysterious dead: mummies, skeletons, ossuaries.The enchanting subject of his recent project Heavenly Bodies are the never-before photographed relics of Europe’s Catholic churches, said to be the bones of Christian martyrs. At their discovery in 1578, these remains were taken from underground tombs and enthroned as objects of worship in place of earlier saintly relics ravaged by the Protestant Reformation.
The opulent adornments that surround the remains (i.e. wigs, gemstones, gold lace) reflect the decadence of the late Middle Ages, when churches ornamentation became more elaborate and extravagant. Dressed like royals, these saints suggest an afterlife filled with heavenly pleasures. Against rich, dark fabrics, the precious metals shine brilliantly; within a tight frame, Koudounaris shoots from below, simultaneously capturing the splendor up-close and elevating the sacred remains to a slightly higher plane.
Although he exalts his subjects in this way, Koudounaris’s images remain touchingly human; while some images capture gigantic, enthroned figures with the utmost deference, others focus on small, humble details. A gap where a tooth once sat or a clenched skeletal hand serves as a poignant memento mori, reminding viewers of the human deaths that happened long ago. The mysterious remains, of whom no one knows the full story, are seen ambiguously, both as a suggestion of an enraptured afterlife and a morbid recognition of mortality and decay. Take a look at the mesmerizing images below. Heavenly Bodies is available in print here. (via Colossal and Hyperallergic)