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

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From bone fetishism in the ancient world to painted
skulls in Austria and Bavaria: an unusual and compelling work of
cultural history.

It is sometimes said that death is the
last taboo, but it was not always so. For centuries, religious
establishments constructed decorated ossuaries and charnel houses that
stand as masterpieces of art created from human bone. These unique
structures have been pushed into the footnotes of history; they were
part of a dialogue with death that is now silent.
The sites
in this specially photographed and brilliantly original study range from
the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Palermo, where the living
would visit mummified or skeletal remains and lovingly dress them; to
the Paris catacombs; to fantastic bone-encrusted creations in Austria,
Cambodia, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Italy,
Peru, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and
elsewhere.
Paul Koudounaris photographed more than seventy
sites for this book. He analyzes the role of these remarkable memorials
within the cultures that created them, as well as the mythology and
folklore that developed around them, and skillfully traces a remarkable
human endeavor. 290 photographs, 260 in color

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

5

Jan 04, 2012

I bought “Empire of Death” for my brother for Christmas because I figured this would fit in nicely with his collection of taxidermic flying lizards, antique promotional flyers and headshots of circus performers, and other fascinating doodads that he seems to acquire for the sole purpose of littering his studio apartment. However, after he squealed with delight upon opening his gift (this is seriously the best thing I’ve ever bought him), I immediately snatched the book from him and spent the I bought “Empire of Death” for my brother for Christmas because I figured this would fit in nicely with his collection of taxidermic flying lizards, antique promotional flyers and headshots of circus performers, and other fascinating doodads that he seems to acquire for the sole purpose of littering his studio apartment. However, after he squealed with delight upon opening his gift (this is seriously the best thing I’ve ever bought him), I immediately snatched the book from him and spent the remainder of Christmas curled up by the fire, occasionally shouting things like “Oh my god, it’s an infant skeleton in a crib!” or “They fucking bejeweled this monk mummy!” It was a good Christmas. This is a fantastic book. ...more
4

Nov 12, 2011

This book is an astounding resource, and the first of its kind as far as I know. The sheer number and variety of ossuary sites described and depicted won't be found in any other book, and the text is very rigorous and detailed. Some might quibble with the over-reliance on Baudrillard's theories of death in the introduction, but the author puts these concepts to good use in describing the significance of ossuaries to the people who made them - they weren't chambers of horror, but sites where the This book is an astounding resource, and the first of its kind as far as I know. The sheer number and variety of ossuary sites described and depicted won't be found in any other book, and the text is very rigorous and detailed. Some might quibble with the over-reliance on Baudrillard's theories of death in the introduction, but the author puts these concepts to good use in describing the significance of ossuaries to the people who made them - they weren't chambers of horror, but sites where the living and the dead continued to relate to one another. Koudounaris also carefully distinguishes the evolving meanings of ossuaries and charnels in the different eras of history in which they appeared.

The photographs (by the author) are dazzling, and I'm in awe both of the effort it took to travel to and photograph all the sites, and the photographic skill of the images. On occasion I wished that, for sites where only one or two photographs appear, the photographs chosen had been more representative of the space as a whole instead of, perhaps, a dramatic angle into the eye socket of a skull. Also (with my arcitectural bias) I wished there was a bit more emphasis on the spatial qualities of the interiors; also a floor plan or two would have been nice to see. The author is an art historian, though, and usually describes the ossuaries as artworks rather than as architectural spaces primarily.

The book is gorgeously produced. The frontmatter says "Design and Art Direction by Barnbrook." Fabulous book, Barnbrook. I love the way you picked up the arrangements of skulls and bones in some of the more classicizing ossuaries and quoted those geometries in the page layouts. But...would it have KILLED you to use a slightly larger typeface? The dedicated reader will lose a few retinal cells in the effort to read the text portions of this book under any kind of ordinary light. And as for the few pages that have a red background - no. Just no.

With those quibbles aside - This book will knock your eyes out and absolutely fascinate you. I hope libraries everywhere will carry it too. If you feel like traveling to see any of these places for yourself, there is an appendix giving the location of each and information about how to visit them. ...more
5

Nov 24, 2011

Wow, this book is outstanding, in terms of the photos, the production, and the research and clarity of the text. It is also a completely unique book--nothing like it has ever appeared that I have ever seen (and I am very interested and literate in subject matter involving both macabre art and religious art history/architecture). I have talked to other people who now own this book, and they are all of the same opinion. In fact, in many ways I think it introduces an entirely new area of study in Wow, this book is outstanding, in terms of the photos, the production, and the research and clarity of the text. It is also a completely unique book--nothing like it has ever appeared that I have ever seen (and I am very interested and literate in subject matter involving both macabre art and religious art history/architecture). I have talked to other people who now own this book, and they are all of the same opinion. In fact, in many ways I think it introduces an entirely new area of study in the history of visual culture. The only negative comment I have seen about this book on this or any other site is a reviewer here who said the text left things to be desired--I am assuming in that case the person wanted more text, because the text that is in the is book is extremely well written, erudite, and factual (the book is balanced between photos and text, and I think the text is probably about 40,000 words). Well, I have worked for and with publishers, and I can tell you that they brought this book to market at the lowest price point they possible could considering the way it was produced, and the decision to keep the text at a certain length was no doubt based on economic factors in retailing the book--if that person wants something more along the lines of a textbook, great, but it would have cost double. Compromises need to be made in today's book market, and the decisions made while putting this book together are spot on--it coheres very well in its aesthetics and presentation. ...more
4

Nov 24, 2014

Those who have gone before well outnumber those of the transitory present and are more swiftly forgotten. It is now overwhelmingly the fashion in Australia to incinerate the dead – burial is a considerable ongoing expense and the real estate is rented (in due course, urban cemeteries will reclaim the space). This incredible book shows and tells us of the veneration of the dead in 17C-19C catholic Europe (and parts of South America and south east Asia) in ossuaries and charnel houses. The Those who have gone before well outnumber those of the transitory present and are more swiftly forgotten. It is now overwhelmingly the fashion in Australia to incinerate the dead – burial is a considerable ongoing expense and the real estate is rented (in due course, urban cemeteries will reclaim the space). This incredible book shows and tells us of the veneration of the dead in 17C-19C catholic Europe (and parts of South America and south east Asia) in ossuaries and charnel houses. The pictures have to be seen to be believed: mountains of bones; garlands of skulls, cages and display cabinets of bones; crosses of skulls, chapels of bones encrusted with skulls, immense grinning cairns of skulls; bones dressed, whitened with lime, lovingly painted or inscribed. Emblematic of the antique catholic tendency to emphasize the majesty of death, these shrines also speak with eloquent silence to our non-doctrinal need, as Freud expressed it, “to make friends with the necessity of dying.” This is beautifully written and researched, though it will give a modern sensibility the absolute creeps.

...more
5

Dec 28, 2014

Bill bought me this for Christmas. We've visited several ossuaries and the Paris catacombs and I always wanted to know how one Earth people started building things like that. This book was a wonderful cultural history of the subject with lots and lots of amazing photos. It explained the origins of the decorated churches and crypts, how they came to be, what they represented, the folklore and superstition of different areas and churches, how the local people related to the bones, and how the Bill bought me this for Christmas. We've visited several ossuaries and the Paris catacombs and I always wanted to know how one Earth people started building things like that. This book was a wonderful cultural history of the subject with lots and lots of amazing photos. It explained the origins of the decorated churches and crypts, how they came to be, what they represented, the folklore and superstition of different areas and churches, how the local people related to the bones, and how the different structures developed over time. I learned so much! What I thought was most fascinating was the fact that most were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. I had imagined them to be much older, but it was fascinating to think that they had developed in more "modern" times. It also includes a map and list of all the different ossauries so you can easily plan which to visit. If you are at all interested in the subject I can't recommend this book highly enough. ...more
3

Nov 29, 2013

There's a lot of good information here, and some nice photos, but overall it left me wanting more. The book design - particularly the type size, but also layout - makes it something of a pain to try and read. The inclusion of non-traditional examples (e.g., the Cambodian memorial stupa for victims of the killing fields) is a nice touch, but suggests a completeness of global coverage that isn't really achieved. Much better is his Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the There's a lot of good information here, and some nice photos, but overall it left me wanting more. The book design - particularly the type size, but also layout - makes it something of a pain to try and read. The inclusion of non-traditional examples (e.g., the Cambodian memorial stupa for victims of the killing fields) is a nice touch, but suggests a completeness of global coverage that isn't really achieved. Much better is his Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs which I had read before this one. ...more
4

Mar 07, 2018

This was beautiful and insightful and had wonderful photographs. Highly recommended for anyone in the death community or if you just love dark art or unusual history. My only complaints were the tiny font size - and I just got new glasses, but come on - and that I wish it had gone more in depth, but the further reading section in the back is kind of a treasure trove. I have yet to properly go through it but I see a lot of names I recognize and it's probably worth digging into.
4

Jul 19, 2019

This is a pretty amazing book ... and I would dearly love to give it 5 stars.
Unfortunately, the typeface is painfully small, and I found myself having to stop reading because of budding headaches from straining to read the type.
4

Sep 16, 2014

A fascinating, insightful look at ossuaries and charnel houses primarily in continental Europe. Abundantly illustrated with excellent quality color photographs.
0

Sep 30, 2011

I've met Paul K. several times before, and he's a notable figure-about-town -- but I didn't know that a)he is a Dr. with a PhD in Art History, and b)he wrote this incredible book. He had a reading & book signing last Saturday at La Luz de Jesus in Los Angeles, and I am sorry to have missed it (due to attending the graduation party of a friend receiving her M.A.!). Very much looking forward to seeing this piece of work.
5

Feb 11, 2014

Awesome book. Putting some of the places on my European "to visit" list.
4

Sep 12, 2011

I saw a copy of this at the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle, It looks outstanding! Can't wait to get this.
2

Apr 03, 2013

Like everyone says this is a beautifully produced book, well researched and written. However the design of the book makes it virtually unreadable. Despite the book being very large there's tons of white space and the text is minuscule. On some pages the 6 pt black font is produced on dark red backgrounds. Did anyone consider someone might want to actually read this book instead of put it on their coffee table?
3

Sep 14, 2012

Not a book about Florida in the 1980’s. Sorry guys. Great text about the renaissance era predilection for constructing elaborate ossuaries, or bone palaces. Monks all across Europe used human bones to create works of unparalleled splendor and gloominess. From holy mummies to bone chandeliers, these constructions are often awe inspiring. While the extensive photographic documentation of ossuaries is the star, the various essays dissecting the obsession many holy orders of the period had with Not a book about Florida in the 1980’s. Sorry guys. Great text about the renaissance era predilection for constructing elaborate ossuaries, or bone palaces. Monks all across Europe used human bones to create works of unparalleled splendor and gloominess. From holy mummies to bone chandeliers, these constructions are often awe inspiring. While the extensive photographic documentation of ossuaries is the star, the various essays dissecting the obsession many holy orders of the period had with human remains is also worth the slog. Best if read by torch light. ...more
4

Apr 15, 2012

This is a landmark book on ossuaries, especially decorative and architecturally arranged ones. It also has many fantastic pictures, some of which are not available on the web and the inside cover plots the ossuaries on a map. Aside from that, it's an attractive addition to any library in the hard-cover format.

Koudounaris’ argument seems to be that charnel houses created an arena for the dead and the living to communicate, which reached its height in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His This is a landmark book on ossuaries, especially decorative and architecturally arranged ones. It also has many fantastic pictures, some of which are not available on the web and the inside cover plots the ossuaries on a map. Aside from that, it's an attractive addition to any library in the hard-cover format.

Koudounaris’ argument seems to be that charnel houses created an arena for the dead and the living to communicate, which reached its height in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His goal is to explain the separation between this conversational attitude and the feelings of confusion, disgust, and even shame over such practices in post-Enlightenment Western Europe. ...more
5

Jan 28, 2018

Excellent photography and interesting information about ossuaries and charnel houses.
5

Feb 06, 2018

Beautiful book. Everything I could want to know about ossuaries and charnel houses, with lovely photographs. Highly recommend.

My one complaint is the small type. The pages had plenty of extra room, could have bumped up the font size so I wouldn’t have to use my old lady glasses to see the words. Also, be cautious on the black background photo pages. It’s very easy to leave unsightly fingerprints.
3

Feb 24, 2019

I didn't read this book completely, just skimmed through at the library. The pictures were fascinating and slightly unsettling. As for the text, I think you should have a special interest in that subject to pick this book up and enjoy.
5

Sep 28, 2014

As has been testified elsewhere, Paul Koudanaris' exploration of the historical anachronism known as the 'Ossuary' is, firstly, a work of exceptional beauty. His photographs of these places that are entirely morbid to many Western eyes, evincing second & third hand impressions of the Black Death & two World Wars (both times the Horseman of War is followed closely by Death, Plague and famine: the scarlet fever showing no mercy to the already ravaged nations who fought in the Great War: As has been testified elsewhere, Paul Koudanaris' exploration of the historical anachronism known as the 'Ossuary' is, firstly, a work of exceptional beauty. His photographs of these places that are entirely morbid to many Western eyes, evincing second & third hand impressions of the Black Death & two World Wars (both times the Horseman of War is followed closely by Death, Plague and famine: the scarlet fever showing no mercy to the already ravaged nations who fought in the Great War: the terrifying industrialized killing machines employed by the Nazi's to make quick pitiless work of genocide), have far more significance than mere shock. His anthropological investigation into the origins of the Ossuary suggest a deep cultural disconnect that only a small and curious portion of the Western World have managed to plug themselves into. Until the 19th & 20th centuries, the average person had a familiarity with death that was unavoidable. The skull was seen as a symbol of one's resignation to his own mortality. From the late Gothic to the Renaissance to the Baroque, the 'Vanitas' theme of the living man studying the dead to remind himself of life's transience is a constant. The Ossuary can be seen as an architectural and sculptural progression of the Vanitas theme, as well as a solution to a very real problem of city-planning. As plagues and battles raged, and cities continued to grow through the late medieval age, places to bury the dead became harder to find. Graveyards were stacking graves two - three coffins deep. As the distances one was forced to travel in order to bury the dead became untenable, the catacombs were opened and expanded, and the Ossuary was born. The decorative and artistic qualities came from a need for reverance, far from the 'blasphemous' intent that modern eyes think they perceive. The skull is no longer a symbol of mortality, those eyeless sockets windows into the world beyond. Koudanaris is skilled as both a photographer and writer, and the book is copiously illustrated with full color photos of magnificent specimens like St. Pancratius, his bones carefully assembled in his gleaming suit of bespoke armor of silver and gold. Thames and Hudson are repected publishers, and the design and production of this book explains why this is so. A thick black cover with gilt-embossed titles and borders, dual-paper stock, one optimal for text, the other high-quality semi-gloss, the primary stock, perfect for hi-res photo reproductions. A must buy for anyone with a fascination for mans relationship with his mortality. ...more
4

Nov 10, 2012

This is a fabulous looking book with wonderful photos accompanying the text. Try leaving it on your coffee table and see how many of your guests are tempted to pick it up. I had read an excerpt from this in Fortean Times and was impressed with the author’s research and he doesn’t disappoint in the full text.
He gives us an overview of the creation of ossuaries and charnel houses and their decline. Some have vanished but are still legendary and their creation are a useful reminder that previous This is a fabulous looking book with wonderful photos accompanying the text. Try leaving it on your coffee table and see how many of your guests are tempted to pick it up. I had read an excerpt from this in Fortean Times and was impressed with the author’s research and he doesn’t disappoint in the full text.
He gives us an overview of the creation of ossuaries and charnel houses and their decline. Some have vanished but are still legendary and their creation are a useful reminder that previous generations lived with death far more closely than we do and did not find these places morbid or grotesque. Traditions associated with skulls, such as painting them with foliage or names, are also discussed and also the patterns in which they are arranged. There is a short section on preserved and displayed remains and also the Bling skeletons. These are the ones in the Fortean Times excerpt and these are bejewelled and bedecked skeletons to be found in obscure Eastern Europe churches. Impressive creations indeed. However, many have vanished over the centuries and the author also provides full details on these.
Well known sites such as Sedlec and the Paris catacombs are also discussed at length and also the Naples cemetery of which I had previously heard of but enjoyed reading more on its history. A useful gazetteer is included and I discovered that there were more ossuaries in the UK than I thought and one in the City of London.
The photographs are excellent and justify the book’s price and gave me a useful insight into the world of ossuaries and charnel houses.
However, there was one quibble. It was the small, Gothic print which rendered some of the text difficult to read and also the technique of printing onto a dark background which had the same effect.
For those who might consider the subject matter morbid, I can only say that reading about death always makes me feel glad to be alive and that it’s not how you die but how you live and what you do with your life that matters. ...more
5

Nov 07, 2014

I love this book! It's fascinating, extremely well written, all around beautifully produced, and absolutely worth it for the magnificent photography alone. The study covers a variety of areas, best of which (to me) were how the contemporary Western views on death have changed throughout history, and the myths and legends surrounding the bones in regards to their histories and assumed powers. I only wish there had been more to read on the latter subject matter in this book, but that isn't a I love this book! It's fascinating, extremely well written, all around beautifully produced, and absolutely worth it for the magnificent photography alone. The study covers a variety of areas, best of which (to me) were how the contemporary Western views on death have changed throughout history, and the myths and legends surrounding the bones in regards to their histories and assumed powers. I only wish there had been more to read on the latter subject matter in this book, but that isn't a complain, per se. Rather, it's a declaration of how I yearn for more. I can hardly wait for Koudounaris' upcoming third book on death culture!

I do have one complaint, however. The format of the book is stunning, yes, but at times it felt a bit laborious to read such small font - which was there apparently more for stylizing than anything else. But, for the contents, this is a five star experience, and an amazing resource. Also, as a minor note: As someone whose native language is not English, I found this quite superb in terms of learning some new vocabulary.

As a work that is sure to expand one's views regarding death as a concept, this is a must read. Highly recommended. ...more
5

Jul 11, 2015

Everything about Empire of Death amazes me; the comprehensive, meticulous research by the author, the beautifully eerie photographs, the engaging, thoughtful text make for a very elegant and intelligent book for my collection. This is such a beautifully made book.

I am an avid graveyard enthusiast whose interest has bled over to ossuaries. I've only visited the Paris Catacombs and the Bone Cherch in Kutna Hora and was naturally curious about other sites. Koudounaris has whetted my appetite to Everything about Empire of Death amazes me; the comprehensive, meticulous research by the author, the beautifully eerie photographs, the engaging, thoughtful text make for a very elegant and intelligent book for my collection. This is such a beautifully made book.

I am an avid graveyard enthusiast whose interest has bled over to ossuaries. I've only visited the Paris Catacombs and the Bone Cherch in Kutna Hora and was naturally curious about other sites. Koudounaris has whetted my appetite to visit all the other ossuaries he's described and written about in fascinating detail.

My friends and family shudder every time I tell them about a graveyard I've visited. Like most people, they think it is a morbid passion. They should read Koudounaris's wonderful intro essay "A Dialogue with Death" which explains that fear of death and the separation of the dead from the living is actually a recent cultural phenomenon.

So happy I found this book by accident! ...more
5

Mar 29, 2013

Lavishly illustrated alternatives to burial (and fire), including the piles of bones in Cambodia.

Btw, "charnel house," pace Picasso et al, means "bone chamber (or chapel." The dead can lend themselves to arty presentations.

One reason to stack-em-up was that the land set aside for a cemetery was needed for new corpses——or had become too valuable to be allocated to Death.
4

Dec 25, 2014

"Thus far vanity, from here on eternity"

The author explains in a great way what ossuaries and charnels are and how different cultures over the world approach death through these settings. Religion is a great influence on this matter and all of those sacred places have other reasons for existence.

For those who love history and anthropology, I would recommend this book. The information reads really fluent and has a great deal of photographic pages, which makes it really interesting.

Personally, "Thus far vanity, from here on eternity"

The author explains in a great way what ossuaries and charnels are and how different cultures over the world approach death through these settings. Religion is a great influence on this matter and all of those sacred places have other reasons for existence.

For those who love history and anthropology, I would recommend this book. The information reads really fluent and has a great deal of photographic pages, which makes it really interesting.

Personally, this wasn't a book to read in one night or one day, too much information and details. Still, it's an awesome book and I would shove it in some people's noses.
...more
5

Apr 20, 2012

i kind of scoffed when i read someone's review claiming that the text left a little something to be desired, but they weren't wrong. it left me hungry for so much more. that said, what was there wasn't bad. insightful & concise, perfect to read in chunks. and the photographs! gorgeous. dreamy sigh goes here.

the text is ridiculously small and sometimes painful to read, especially black on dark red, but i'm not going to give the book a bad rating solely for that. just going to note that for i kind of scoffed when i read someone's review claiming that the text left a little something to be desired, but they weren't wrong. it left me hungry for so much more. that said, what was there wasn't bad. insightful & concise, perfect to read in chunks. and the photographs! gorgeous. dreamy sigh goes here.

the text is ridiculously small and sometimes painful to read, especially black on dark red, but i'm not going to give the book a bad rating solely for that. just going to note that for anyone who has bad eyes. ...more

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