Skeleton of the Week, April 29: Nicholas von der Flüe


The above is the sole image that exists of what was once Nicholas’s extraordinary skeleton. It’s a terrible shame–at least for us skel-o-philes–because it is one of the most exceptionally accoutered sets of human remains ever known. In the research for the new book, I searched every archive I could find for other images of his skeleton. There is only this one, provided by the parish is Sachseln, Switzerland where the skeleton once stood, and that’s it

Nicholas was born in Unterwalden, Switzerland in 1417 and gained fame as savvy political counselor, a pious mystic, and a formidable military captain. He would fight with one hand holding a sword and the other a rosary. He was also a terrible husband and something of a curmudgeon: in 1467 he gave up on his wife and ten children and spent the rest of his life a hermit. Living in caves or wherever else he chose, he avoided the rest of humanity as much as possible. He also avoided food–surviving for the next two decades only on Communion wafers.

For these efforts, he was greatly esteemed, and when he died near Sachseln in 1487, he was interred in the local parish church. He was beatified in 1669, and his skeleton covered in jewels and enshrined. In 1947, he was canonized as a Catholic saint. At this time, he became the official patron saint of Switzerland. The jewels had already come off in the 1930s, and his bones placed in a golden casket bearing his likeness. I suspect the black and white photo of the skeleton was in fact taken just before the relic was disassembled, for the express purpose of documenting his former grandiosity. As the Swiss were pressing ever harder for canonization, his appearance became an increasing embarrassment. Apparently they felt it would be easier to have him accepted as a saint if he were in a nice gold box, rather than kneeling in the church, with a garnet coming out of his nose, and a giant red velvet heart covered in emeralds protruding from his chest. So instead of a fabulously jeweled skull, this is the face he now presents to the world–the change was considered a matter of “good taste.”

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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