I spent over four years scouring three continents in an attempt to document the world’s finest surviving ossuaries, and in the process recover the history of a long-forgotten genre of Early Modern visual culture: the decoration of religious shrines in human bone. This had been a major movement in the Catholic world in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, but the remnants now exist in only fragmentary form. Since this was a heretofore unknown field of study, it was necessary that I bridge certain gaps between anthropology, religious studies, and art history to reveal how a morbid strain of religious sentiment took root at first among penitent religious orders, and then filtered down to the laity, inspiring a revolutionary new interest in the macabre. Cemeteries and charnel houses were emptied and their contents strung along walls and arranged in elaborate designs, in part as a statement of memento mori, but even moreso as a testament of Faith in eventual salvation. The movement became increasingly secularized through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries until what I began to term the “dialogue with death” was eventually silenced. My research would evolve into a kind of quest, veering between the epic, comic, and bizarre, and the final result was the publication of the book The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses (Thames and Hudson: due October 2011).
Some of the sites I studied are major tourist destinations and famous to this day, but many others are unheard of—located often in remote rural areas, and in some cases found by diligent research, in others by sheer accident. Among them were some which had never before been photographed. Other sites, no longer extant, were discovered in searches through archival material, but even these were sometimes reborn through the discovery of old prints or early photos. I never felt that the subject I was dealing with was death, and in presenting the sites I strove to recontextualize them for a modern audience which is all too inclined to view them as products of morbidity and despair. These sites were intended as statements of hope and beauty, and it was important to me that I find a means through photographs and the writing of history to convey that: these sites represent death only in so far as death itself affirms life.