Skeletons of the Week, May 6: Sts. Renatus Aurelius and Domitia from Rot and der Rot, Germany

SKELETONS OF THE WEEK, MAY 6: STS. RENATUS AURELIUS AND DOMITIA FROM ROT AN DER ROT, GERMANY


Sts. Aurelius Renatus and Domitia in Rot an der Rot, Germany, are unique among all the old, beatified skeletons I have studied, and to my knowledge among all those brought forth from the Roman Catacombs, in that they were the only two ever identified as husband and wife. They were identified as such due to the inscription “Domitia Aurelii Conjux” (Domitia, wife of Aurelius). No doubt, then, that these two skeletons, found in the same burial place, were husband and wife. To preserve that union, both skeletons were sent to the Norbertine church in Rot an der Rot, and enshrined together in one altar, as seen in the commemorative engraving above.


My doubts have never been about their union, which seems sure, but ironically whether they were actually Christians. Both have gravestones beneath their current shrines–while they are supposedly original, they look to me most certainly to be reproductions. If they are reproductions, it is hard to know what to make of the inscription. Hers, for instance, bears a Christian symbol (the chi rho, the old Greek initials for Christ’s name), but it also bears the year Annis XXXV, or 35 AD. That would be awfully early for a Christian martyr in Rome–Christ himself did not die until between somewhere between 30-36 AD, and by comparison St. Peter was martyred in Rome, but not until some 30 years later. Her gravestone inscriptions seems not quite right. Either the year is wrong, or the year is correct, and whoever reproduced the inscription added chi rho to try to make the pair seem more convincingly Christian.


While the status of the pair as Christian martyrs may be dubious, there is still something profound about the two being reunited after death. Their altar became a shrine for married couples, who saw in them a patron for their own unions in faith. People would come to the altar to renew their vows, and affirm their love and fidelity.


Sadly, the twentieth century came along and, as usual, messed things up. The two were moved to separate altars. It seems in retrospect a cruel gesture, and also a bizarre one–if the church was convinced they were the only known set of married saints preserved together, why separate them? Apparently in the first decade of the twentieth century, symmetry was more important than fidelity, and it was desired that one be on each side of the nave. to give greater visual balance. Their skulls were also coated over by molded was faces, because it was further decided that the modern world would better find faith in polished, life-like masks, than dead sockets. In fact, their anatomy is now so hidden that they are more sculptures than skeletons; the only traces left are on their chests, which show hearts supportedf in place by stubs of ribs. It is a cursory gesture, but one that at least affirms that whoever these two were, their love survived the grave.


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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