Heavenly Bodies Lecture Brings "Haute Macabre" Art to VCU

September 24, 2018

An elaborated bejeweled skull with eyes made of blue jewels and wearing a golden crown.

Most people don’t associate death with beauty, but Paul Koudounaris’s work is perhaps best described as “haute macabre” for the ways in which he explores the interplay of artistry and burial. For more than a decade, the art historian and photographer has been capturing the bizarre beauty of human remains used as decorative elements in sacred spaces that would put a haunted house to shame. He will be discussing bejeweled skeletons from the Counter Reformation on Tuesday, Oct. 2 from 4 to 6 p.m. at VCU’s Cabell Library Lecture Hall, Room 303.

Originally from Los Angeles, Koudournaris began researching and photographing human remains used for religious and decorative purposes in 2006. His research took him to four continents and over 70 religious sites, ultimately resulting in his 2011 book "The Empire of Death," the first published history of bone-decorated religious architecture. Many of his photos capture private sites that would otherwise never be seen by the general public.

His upcoming lecture "Heavenly Bodies" is based on his second book of the same name in which he explores a series of highly ornamented skeletons known as catacomb saints that were mistakenly revered and displayed as early Christian martyrs throughout the 1600s. Although most were destroyed during the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment, Koudounaris managed to document the few that have survived.

Heralded by journalists as “Indiana Bones,” Koudounaris is highly respected within the field of art history in general, but particularly within the niche of macabre art. He has been recognized and praised by the Association of Paris Librarians, Dazed and Confused magazine, the London Evening Standard, Fortean Times and American Photo magazine.

A bejeweled skull as seen in profile wearing a golden headpiece.

In his third book published in 2015, "Memento Mori", Koudounaris took a more global approach to documenting ossuary based art with subjects from Africa, Asia, and South America. He remains active and prominent in the newly emerging Death Positive movement as a member of The Order of the Good Death, an organization focused on embracing our mortality and natural burial.

Paul Koudounaris wearing a hat, holding his camera and posing with two skulls.

Heavenly Bodies is part of the ongoing Bishop Walter Sullivan lecture series through VCU’s School of World Studies. Koudounaris’s documentation of how different cultures process death complements the school’s mission to explore the inherent humanity of diverse peoples around the world since mortality is a universal human experience.