Dressed up in Roman-style regalia and a flower crown, lounging next to a vial of his own blood, Saint Aurelius is the prettiest skeleton I’ve ever seen. (And I’ve seen a few, because you’re never far from a body part in a Portuguese church.)
We meet just off the cloisters of the Cathedral of Porto, in a storage room so dark it takes the harsh glow of a smartphone screen to light the way. These aren’t the Saint’s usual chambers, the sexton explains as we squeeze in along the gilded glass tomb, but he’s been recently moved to accommodate renovation work elsewhere in the cathedral. Soon, Saint Aurelius will be back in his beautifully tiled chapel.
For now, however, he’s a hand’s breadth from me, all decked out in golden chainmail and floral brocade and looking as relaxed as only thousand-year-old skeletons in 18th century finery can be. Sitting on my haunches between him and his carbon copy, Saint Pacificus, I’m intrigued by their longevity — which is the same as saying I’m intrigued by all the people whose conservation efforts have made it possible for us to meet. It takes a village, sometimes literally, to bring a skeleton saint like Aurelius unharmed into the 21st century.
Though he is less ostentatious than his central European cousins, the lavishly bejeweled ancient skeletons rescued from oblivion in 2013 by art historian Paul Koudounaris’ book Heavenly Bodies, Aurelius shares their essential origin story: he, too, was dug up by the Vatican from the Roman catacombs, at some point after the 16th century Protestant Reformation, and brought to a faraway altar to serve as a Catholic saint.
This phenomenon served a particular purpose in central Europe, where Protestant raids had systematically stripped Catholic altars of their iconography and relics. In response, the Vatican launched a desperate search for new saints, digging far into the catacombs under the streets of Rome, where it was believed that many Early Christian martyrs had been buried in the first to fourth centuries. The Vatican’s diggers began to unearth a seemingly endless cache of potential new saints to deploy in retaliation to the Protestant threat; eventually, thousands of skeletons were exhumed, dusted off and dressed up, then shipped off to exude Catholic glamour in churches all over Europe.
And so it was that Saint Aurelius, accompanied by his near-twin Saint Pacificus, arrived in blissfully perma-Catholic Portugal in the mid-1700s. By 1789, both saints were lounging peacefully on either side of the altar of the Porto cathedral. A century later, however, they were gone. As the Church snapped out of that Reformation-induced state of calamity, it came to view catacomb saints as bejeweled impostors with little believable claim to sainthood, bootleg saints dug up in an embarrassing fit of institutionalized grave-robbing. Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, this mindset evolved into the active destruction of countless catacomb saints, whose jewel-encrusted brocades now seemed decadent and out of place. The lucky ones, like Aurelius and Pacificus, were simply ushered into storage and conveniently forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind.
Fortunately for the pair, history rolled gently forwards, and by 2012 the Porto Cathedral decided to wheel them back out — but not before giving them a makeover at the Center for Art Conservation and Restoration of the Catholic University of Portugal. Aurelius, in particular, fell under the protection of grad student Joana Palmeirão, now a full-fledged researcher of catacomb saints.
“Some people thought he was a mummy, they actually believed he had organs and skin,” Palmeirão tells me, referring back to the beginning of her time with Aurelius. The period he’d spent in storage had severely eroded the collective memory of him, to the point where church officials were no longer sure of what he was. Some, familiar with the incorrupt (i.e. non-decomposed, usually mummified) saints of northern Portugal, took Aurelius for one; others, Palmeirão and her team included, took him for a sculpture.
“It was my supervisor, a trained archaeologist, who first noticed the bones,” she continues. The discovery was nothing short of bizarre, as it brought a team of art restorers to the realization that they’d be working on a dead man rather than a simulacrum of one, but Palmeirão took it in stride. The fact that Aurelius’ identity as a skeleton saint had eluded detection for so long, she tells me, was simply proof of a generalized lack of knowledge regarding these bygone manifestations of Catholic devotion.
(It also didn’t help that Aurelius was, stylistically speaking, a very modest saint. Unlike his central European cousins, whose costumes made a point to show a glimpse of bone here and there, Aurelius was fully dressed. Even his skull was covered by a piece of painted canvas, an unconventional solution Palmeirão suspects may have been implemented in the 19th century, as a possible attempt to hide Aurelius’s catacumbal origins.)
One of Palmeirão’s first tasks was to make sure that, now that they’d been detected, Aurelius’ bones were all present and accounted for. Together with a medical examiner and a forensic anthropologist, she subjected the saint to the impropriety of an x-ray machine and discovered that this was not quite the case: his pelvis was upside down and all his ribs were missing, as were his sternum, left scapula, every single finger, both ankles, and both heels. He was human-like, but not formally so, assembled by nuns rather than anatomists, for faithful pilgrims rather than medical students.
Hints of the life he’d led before ending up in the Roman catacombs were written on his bones: his right calf bone showed evidence of a half-mended fracture, while his neck vertebrae showed signs of wear often associated with old age. He wasn’t a young man, back when he died in the first to fourth centuries, but maybe he wasn’t even a man at all: the curious positioning of his pelvis prevented the forensic anthropologist from making any guesses towards his sex.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter who Saint Aurelius was pre-Reformation. It matters that he is among us now, thanks to the ever-growing series of unlikely events that brought him all the way from Rome to Porto, all the way from the hands of whoever buried him in the first century (or the fourth) to those of Joana Palmeirão’s in the 21st. Other catacomb saints haven’t been as lucky, or as pampered, but Early Christians were nothing if not a resilient bunch–and Palmeirão, for her part, believes their time has yet to come.
“There are dozens of saints in Portugal whose bodies were brought from the Roman catacombs,” she tells me, with the conviction of someone who intends to make contact with a considerable number of them. When I probe her further (surely we’d have noticed by now if we had that many holy skeletons!), she reminds me of how Aurelius and Pacificus flew so gently under the radar, camouflaged as they were by intricate layers of canvas and gold thread. The fact is I’ve been to church, to many churches, and I see her point: in a country so densely populated by all manner of lifesize sculptures of saints, it doesn’t sound all that implausible that some of them could be harboring bones on the inside. “Some catacomb saints are bound to be even better disguised than Saint Aurelius,” Palmeirão concludes, upping the ante, “wearing more complete costumes, or wax masks and limbs over the bones, which is likely to complicate their detection.”
Joana Palmeirão will keep her eyes peeled for catacomb saints wherever she goes now, and so will I. Here’s to hoping, as Paul Koudounaris did, that they will come out of hiding.