Dr. Paul Koudounaris “Empire of Death”
For centuries, religious establishments constructed decorated ossuaries and charnel houses from human bone. These unique structures which stand as masterpieces of art have been pushed into the footnotes of history; they were part of a dialogue with death that is now silent.
In 2006, Dr. Paul Koudounaris (PhD in Art History at UCLA), found a research topic which would preoccupy the next four years of his existence. Koudounaris’ interest in the bizarre and suspicious led him to an extraordinary charnel house in the crypt under the Church of Sts Peter and Paul in the Czeck Republic town of Melnik. Unlike the “Bone Church” in nearby Sedlec, it was gritty and dirty, not for tourists and even unknown by most locals, but contained an arrangement of bones that reflected both a beauty in artistic principles and an understanding of philosophy and theology. Upon discovering that the local hostel receptionist had no idea of its existence, Dr. Koudounaris set his sights on discovering how many more of these charnel houses might still be standing.
Dr. Koudounaris eventually visited researched and photographed charnel houses on four continents - plus countless others he found in historic documents, grande dames which had fallen by the wayside of the passing centuries. They are presented in the book The Empire of Death which, with detailed photos and text not only recovers their history, but the history of the religious movement which gave birth to them. This is not a book about the macabre or death. It is a book about beauty and salvation.
In this tour de force of original cultural history, Dr. Koudounaris takes the reader on an unprecedented international tour of macabre and devotional architectural masterpieces in nearly 20 countries. The sites in this 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 elaborate bone-encrusted creations in Austria, Cambodia, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Italy, Peru, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and elsewhere. Koudounaris photographed and analyzed 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 with 250 full-color and 50 black-and-white photographs in a beautifully bound leather covered book.