Skeleton of the Week, April 8: St. Donatus of Bad Münstereifel, Germany

SKELETON OF THE WEEK, APRIL 8: ST. DEODATUS OF BAD MÜNSTEREIFEL, GERMANY


I will admit that the remains of the skeleton of St. Donatus in Bad Münstereifel, Germany, are not nearly as impressive as the skeletons I have profiled over the last few weeks–not only are they less decorated, they are not even articulated. In fact, the remains are not even complete, and what few bones are present in the town’s Jesuit church are simply wrapped in colored fabric and nowadays stored away unseen in a shrine. But what might seem in our eyes to be deficiencies in presentation were in fact due to Donatus’ own incredible popularity: he was the most famous of all the skeletons taken from the Roman Catacombs, and so esteemed that everyone wanted a piece of him . . . literally.


The skeleton was found in one of Rome’s subterranean galleries in, the 1640s, and a decade later was on its way to Germany. It was presumed that of a martyr, although in reality the identity, like many of the skeletons discovered at that time, was indeterminate. The name “Donatus” simply means in Latin something akin to “donated”–calling him Donatus really just meant that the bones were presumed sacred, and being given to a church as a relic. As he was being marched into town, however, a storm broke out, and a local priest was struck down by lighting. This might seem a rather dubious portent and a bad way to introduce the holy remains to the town, but the exact opposite turned out to be the case. As he was struck by the bolt, the priest called on Donatus to save him. When he did not die, his survival was attributed to Donatus intercession. This was considered a miraculous act, and a cult soon spread around the skeleton.


Donatus immediately became a patron for the protection against lightning, and over time he also became a general apotropaic against bad luck in general, as well as a weather control saint. He was worshipped not just locally, but across Europe–cults dedicated to him were found in Luxembourg, Austria, and the Netherlands, among other places. Woodcuts and engravings like that above, purportedly bearing the likeness of him as a living man, were also popular, especially if they had been touched to his bones to transfer some of his power. They would be placed in fields to ensure good weather for planting, or carried around as good luck charms. To this day there are churches dedicated to him as far away as the USA, and a small town in Iowa is even named after him.


The obsession with Donatus was such that his bones were subdivided many times over–all of these cults wanted a relic, and various local churches and municipalities wanted a fragment of the bones in order to make sure the local populace would be protected from harm. Thus, in Bad Münstereifel itself, not much of Donatus is left. There are some wrapped long bones with silver end caps, and various other fragments. His skull is also present, although it is embedded in a container so that only the top is seen, with a silver label bearing his name. While the paucity of remains from such an esteemed skeleton may be disappointing, it is worth noting that Donatus is kept only a few hundred yards from another very famous German relic–the octogenarian folk singer Heino, who lives in a nearby hotel.


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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