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

I'm really digging the look of Dr. Paul Koudounaris' new book, The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses.

Don't yet have a copy in my hands (it's not out 'til October), but I've pre-Amazonned one for myself. The book is packed with hundreds of gorgeous color photographs of these sites throughout the world, many of which are usually inaccessible to outsiders.

Here's the project website, and here's the publisher's feature page. The first show and signing takes place at La Luz de Jesus gallery in Los Angeles on Sept. 24.

Here is the author/artist's statement, and here is a collection of related essays by Dr. Koudounaris.

Advance order here for $31.50. View more photos and a sneak peek inside the book, below...

From La Luz de Jesus:

In 2006, Dr. Paul Koudounaris who two years earlier completed a 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.

(Thanks, Julien Nitzberg!)



  1. There was a church filled with bones like this in Rome (I believe). But when I went, it was closed for a year for renovations :o(

  2. Would you believe it, 9 months in Czech Republic and I didn’t visit even ONE ossuary – even the famous one, much less a hidden-away secret one.

    I note that on his site he mentions one of the crypts in Italy being the best museum of fashion he’s ever seen. I was glad to see I wasn’t the only one interested in that. It is my real interest in mummies – skeletons and dead bodies all look more or less the same. But it is so rare to find artifacts of whole outfits, and even rarer to see them actually on a body, as they were worn. I might never be able to get over the repel portion of my repulsion/attraction to death, but for the chance to see how an actual woman of the 1700s dressed, I might just manage it.

  3. Visiting the Paris catacombs was a morbid and perception altering event in my life. I’m glad I did it and advise anyone reading this thread to visit an ossuary.

  4. The Empire of Death.  This is a giant cow leather book.  All craftsdwarfship is of the highest quality.  It is decorated with human bone.  This object menaces with spikes of human bone and native gold.  On the item is an image of Urist McFeatherhelmets the dwarf.

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