Work in Progress: Katakomben-Heiliger

If you’re here, you should know what the Katakomben-Heiliger (Catacomb Saints) are.  In the 16th and 17th Centuries, European Catholic churches had a tradition of exquisitely decorating skeletons purported to be the earthly relics of saints.  The Church being the Church, we have no idea who these bones belong to.  So what we have are lots of skeletons and remains literally encrusted with embroidery, gold, silver, and jewels – or at least good paste!  Since we don’t know who was who, I had the idea that people could have hid bodies in plain sight.  Then, on reading more, I learned that nuns were usually in charge of making the decorations.  What if a sister had preserved the bones of someone very special, but billed the corpse as a saint for years….what if a modern historian found the remains of a tragic love story that had been gathering dust for centuries?

So here’s the start of it!  The ___ are there because I need to make up a suitably German-sounding name.  It’s not pretension, just laziness.  I just have some scenes together – as I work on more, I’ll keep adding and filling in the massive plot holes 🙂

 

photo of decorated relic skull
Von Photo: Andreas Praefcke – Eigenes Werk (own photograph), Gemeinfrei, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15409027

“Michael, why do we have to visit another church?  I can’t take anymore incense, it’s making me wheeze.”  Burt shifted uncomfortably in the taxi seat, watching yet another mile of ____ go by.  

“Darling, when you married me, you married my thesis, too.  Have a tissue and make the best of it. We are going to visit the Albertuskirchen, so help me.”

“It’s morbid.  I love you but your research is Catholic and morbid and I’m starting to itch.”  

Burt had never been shy about his disapproval for Michael’s love of Catholic relics.  When they met, he had been electrified by the other man’s near blasphemous attitude toward religion.  Never having been too religious himself, Burt had missed some of the resonance of that attitude, but it nevertheless excited him.  But this, this! Their house was filled with books and papers about ancient Christian customs. Every morning, he had to see images of jeweled skeletons, with horrible wax faces.  He could almost hear the mournful singing and wheedling prayers.

“Why did you pick this, honey?  Why get your doctorate in Dead Things?”

Michael refused to answer, but instead patted Burt’s hand and looked lovingly into his eyes. I am going to lose this battle, Burt thought.

**********

As Michael paid the driver, chatting breezily as one could in German, Burt looked grimly at Albertuskirchen.  It was smaller than he expected, and far simpler than the other Baroque birthday cakes they’d been visiting. This one was probably older.  “Yeah,” thought Burt, “this looks more Romanesque. Yeah, round windows. This is really really old”. Apparently Michael’s work was rubbing off on him.

This was what they came for.  This was the whole point. Albertuskirchen in ______ housed a particularly famous Albertus.  Burt couldn’t believe that anyone, even back in those days, couldn’t check neighboring churches and notice that there were at least 5  Albertuses in the area. But this was the saint Michael wanted, the one he was invited to observe.

This relic was special, however.  It was so exquisitely decorated, so skillfully articulated, even amongst the squadron of other jeweled corpses, that it was famous.  At least it was famous in the community of art historians that worked on such things. “Professional ghouls,” thought Burt, “think of how many people those gems could have fed.  And now people keep writing books about them. This belongs in history, these things need to be forgotten”.

********

Burt felt the need to stretch his legs.  He wandered off back down the nave, towards the entrance.  There was a door there that he hadn’t noticed before. He tried the iron handle and to his surprise it opened.  Inside was a stone staircase and faint daylight. Must lead to the choir, he thought. He stepped inside.  

It was cool in here, he was surrounded by stone.  All he heard was the tapping of his sneakers on the steps as he climbed upwards.  Soon enough he came to the top, his head on level with the choir floor, as if he was in an attic.  He climbed the rest of the stairs and tried to stand up. The choir was clearly built with shorter people in mind – Burt was well over 6 feet tall, a giant by 17th century standards.  

The milky overcast daylight pleased him.  He had to admit that this was quite evocative.  The choir wasn’t as well maintained as the rest of the church – the wooden pews were dusty, dry rot creeping in around their bases.  There was no organ, he noticed as he walked around the loft. Maybe it had been sold or stolen ages ago. Or recently.

He looked around the bare, abandoned loft.  The walls were bare stone, oddly plain compared to the smoothly coated masonry downstairs.  But in the corner, there was one stone that was especially crumbled around the edges, not much bigger than his hand.. He moved closer and put his fingers to the joints between that stone and its neighbors.  It moved a little. Surprised, he pressed on the stone and found it moved back a half an inch. There was a space behind there. Excitedly, he dug in his pockets for something that would let him lever the stone out of its place.  He pulled a credit card from his wallet and gently slid it into the crack, trying to see if he could maneuver the stone enough to pull it back out. It worked: Burt was able to just barely get his fingernails into the crack, and pulled gently.  Slowly, he pulled the stone out, dust falling on his shoes. A dark, stale smell came out, getting stronger as he pulled the stone free. He placed it on a nearby pew and looked in. It was a tiny alcove – how deep, he couldn’t tell. He opened his cell phone for the light and peered in.  

There was something in there, wrapped in cloth.  Burt held his breath. How long had this been here?  How old was this? This had better not be another fucking bone, he thought.  Against his better judgement, he reached in and pulled the object out.  It was weighty, rectangular. A book, a book that has been hidden in a church for four hundred years.

He sat down in the pew, the old wood protesting with loud creaks.  The book was wrapped in white cloth, delicately embroidered with flowers.  He’d have to ask Michael what they were. He’d lived with an art historian long enough to know a piece of cloth was never just a piece of cloth, especially something old.  He carefully unwrapped the book. It was a small leatherbound thing, heavy and satisfying to hold. He touched the stitching on the leather and stroked the edges of the pages – clearly this was a quality piece, made by long dead hands.  The front cover was embossed with the same style of flowers the cloth had.

Should I open it? Should I risk the damage?  No, I had better get this back to Michael. He rewrapped the book, and tucked it into his bag.  Then he replaced the stone and went to return downstairs.

“Burt?  Burt? Where are you?”  Michael walked down the central aisle calling for him.  “Great news!” Burt opened the stairwell door, almost hitting Michael.

“Hey, there you are!  Listen, great news – the ____(prelate?) is letting us see Albertus.  Every couple of years, they take him out of the reliquary and repair the decorations.  They want me to be there! This is amazing! The work on those relics will literally make my thesis.”

Burt smiled at him.  It was great to see him so happy.  “Wait a second – ‘us’?”

“Yeah, yeah, he said you could come along too. I think they’re just happy to have researchers give some attention to this body.  It’s not exactly a happening field” Michael paused, “where were you?”

“Oh, just exploring the place a little. I was in the choir loft” Burt jerked a thumb in the direction of the stairs.  He leaned closer to Michael, whispering “I found something you really need to look at,”

“What is it?’

“Not right now – later.  I’ll show you later”

Michael eyed him and nodded.  “Ok, so tomorrow morning we come back here and get to watch the maintenance.  I’ll need to charge the camera battery.

**********

Michael held his breath as Swann lifted the headpiece from the skull. It was an exquisite crown of gold flowers, delicate, paper-thin myrtle and carnations twined around each other in a wreath. Each leaf had been worked by hand – the entire piece represented weeks of Potentia’s work. A veil of sheer silk was stitched to the crown to cover the saint’s face from dust, probably also a product of her workshop. Michael and Burt watched as she placed the crown on the cotton pillow, spreading the veil out gingerly, her gloved fingers guiding the fabric down to the table.

“Mein Gott” breathed Swann as she looked back at the exposed skull. In startlingly crisp letters, there was an inscription on the forehead of the skull.

“What the hell?” Michael trailed off as Burt felt a catch in his throat he couldn’t quite understand.

Swann bent closer to the skull, working through the Fraktur letters, still deep black on the bone. “It’s in latin….’Alberta, amica mea – dormire suaviter, servabo te”

They all stopped, frozen in place. Michael grasped Burt’s hand and squeezed it. Swann looked at the men, her mouth open in surprise. Burt clung tightly to Michael, and the meaning of what they now saw became clear.

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