We’re in a thin place– and not just because we’re in weight-obsessed, gluten-intolerant, dairy-free Los Angeles. Pre-Christian civilizations from the Maya to the Celts identified this time of year, between the Autumnal Equinox and Winter Solstice, as a specific period when the worlds became temporarily permeable by ordinary people. In the several weeks between these major astronomical events, many cultures believed that the living and dead could pass more freely than usual between their designated spheres. Old wrongs could be righted, messages could be delivered, without the usual intervention of a shaman, priest or other ambassador with needed crossover cred.
These beliefs gave rise to traditions which linger with us still: the cleaning of family grave-sites, Hallowe’en masking, pranks, treats offered as bribes, prayers offered for the departed, and sugar skulls crowned with candy flowers and gaily frosted with the names of the living. Irish people have an expression– a “thin” place, meaning a place where the reassuring barriers between the worlds are thin, for whatever reasons, celestial or otherwise, and may be penetrated. These next few weeks historically find us in that thin place, aisles upon aisles of 5-pound bags of mini-Tootsie Rolls notwithstanding.
However, Los Angeles author, photographer and scholar Paul Koudounaris, whose new book “HEAVENLY BODIES: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints From the Catacombs” has just been published by Thames & Hudson, travels easily through these membraneous states without the permission of the calendar or the stars. Koudounaris, who took his doctorate in the art history department of UCLA, has been dubbed “Indiana Bones” for his exhaustive and inspired research into historic skeletal remains, their meaning and their purpose.
His previous book, “THE EMPIRE OF DEATH”, is a sharply written, lavishly illustrated cultural history of obscure European ossuaries and charnel houses. “HEAVENLY BODIES” takes us to the bejeweled lairs of much-maligned “catacomb saints”, skeletons and skulls of questionable provenance which were brought into the Catholic realm of German-speaking Europe to replace holy relics that had been destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. Both books– to paraphrase the author–seem like the books most likely to be stolen from the library. Dr. Koudounaris gained unprecedented access to religious institutions to study and photograph these artifacts (I can’t help but mention: many of the catacomb saints were dressed and decorated by orders of nuns). The astonishing images sometimes surpass the author’s compelling text. Simply, the dead speak here.
The author will discuss his work and sign his book in two upcoming vivid multimedia presentations: WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 30 — 7 pm Glendale Central Library Auditorium, 222 E. Harvard Street, Glendale CA (818) 548-2027, www.glendalepubliclibrary.org 3 hours parking validated in the garage on the corner of Maryland and Harvard AND: FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 1 –8pm LA LUZ DE JESUS GALLERY 4633 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles (323) 666-7667 firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo from “HEAVENLY BODIES”, St. Getreu, courtesy of the author