The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses

Paul Koudounaris, Author
Paul Koudounaris. Thames & Hudson, $50 (224) ISBN 978-0-500-25178-2
Reviewed on: 01/30/2012
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"Morbid elegance is puzzling to modern eyes," declares Koudounaris as he commences this global journey celebrating the macabre through a socio-cultural history of charnel houses and ossuaries. "Little by little, the dead cease to exist," professed French sociologist Jean Baudrillard; we no longer ritualize beyond immediate requirements, as death—and the body itself—according to Koudounaris are now decidedly "abject." Koudounaris takes the reader to a time when the skull was not only "an object of veneration," but a sobering reminder of mortality and a symbol of the belief that death brings eternal life. Ancient crypts were "imbued with the idea of salvation" and through Koudounaris' awesome photographs, readers are given "an opportunity to affirm life by embracing death." Early 17th century Italian tombs became increasingly elaborate as "macabre décor" proved oddly lucrative, and the tale of the 19th century exhumation of the Cimetière des Innocents to form the famed Paris catacombs, or "l'Empire de la Morte," is particularly fascinating. Highlighting the importance of the conservation and restoration of such relics, Koudounaris' passion for and knowledge of the topic is undeniable, alluding to a historical "epidemic lack of concern" that must be rectified if these mesmerizing masterpieces are to retain their "spiritual and artistic value." His scholarly curiosity has constructed a dark yet dazzling dialogue that deserves to be heard by many—"the dead were not expected to be mute." Photos and illus. (Oct.)
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