Skeleton of the Week: April 1, St. Deodatus of Moosburg

SKELETON OF THE WEEK, APRIL 1: ST. DEODATUS OF MOOSBURG, GERMANY


Like the skeleton of St. Faustine which I profiled last week, that of St. Deodatus in Moosburg, Bavaria, seemed lost to the hazy mist of time. I had found an account from a Protestant writer who had visited the city in the 1840s and seen the decorated skeleton in a local church. He called it “a truly hideous sight,” and said little more. That was not much to go on, and in addition any attempt to find him would be complicated by the fact that there are multiple towns in Germany named Moosburg, or called things very similar.


Deodatus is not properly a name–it is a title, more-or-less meaning “A gift from God,” and was bequeathed upon many skeletons taken from the Roman Catacombs with indeterminate identities. I contacted all the towns with names similar to Moosburg, asking if they had any record of a Deodatus having once been in their parish. They unanimously responded that there were no records of such a skeleton having been there. This was as I expected, since the paucity of historical records led me to assume he had probably been removed and destroyed in the nineteenth century.


It turned out I was wrong. One of the parishes wrote back and amended their reply. They had no record of a decorated skeleton named Deodatus in their parish, but they did have a curious old box (seen in the photo above) stored under an altar. The origin of the box was uncertain, and the top was partially removed once to peer inside, and it apparently contained a mass of bones. On their end, they were curious as to what might be in the box, so I was welcome to come examine it if I thought I might be able to identify the contents.


I arrived in the parish to meet the priest, who would take me to the box. At that point, the water line leading to his furnace burst, flooding his office. I was standing there, holding the small amount of documentation I had been able to put together on this elusive St. Deodatus, speaking to the priest, when suddenly we were up to our ankles in water. This seemed like some kind of bad omen, but to his credit the priest was completely un-phased. He walked into the other room and told his secretary to call a plumber, then asked if I would like to go examine the box–together, with sopping wet feet, we walked to the church, removed a green wooden casket from a side altar, and took it into the sacristy.


Immediately upon opening it, I realized these were the remains of St. Deodatus. The treatment of the bones and their condition left no doubt that they had come from the Roman Catacombs. As I gently removed them, layer by layer, it became evident the entire skeleton was present–it had apparently been completely disassembled so as to be stored in as small a package as possible, but it was all there. Not only that, there was a sealed vial containing dehydrated bits of what was believed to be his blood. The bones were tightly wedged in against the aged lining; it seemed likely he had been packed away maybe a century and a half ago, and had not been removed until that very moment. We cleared off the table in the sacristy, and I reassembled him so that he could be photographed. I had to disassemble him afterward and replace him in the box. In all the research for the forthcoming book, the finding and handling of St. Deodatus was the most profound experience. I felt a great sorrow in placing him back in the green wooden casket, which was then returned to it place under the altar. After 150 years, he had been out of the box for what?–maybe half an hour. And then he was stored away again, and will probably stay that way. But at least his presence is now known, and his image documented. He is no longer lost in the mists of time.

The book Heavenly Bodies by Paul Koudounaris, a history of skeletons taken from the Roman Catacombs, will be released Fall 2013 by Thames and Hudson. Images from the book will be featured in a gallery show at La Luz de Jesus in Los Angeles, and the book is available for pre-order via

book cover

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