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The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses (edition 2011)

by Paul Koudounaris

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784154,388 (4.32)3
Member:tch
Title:The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses
Authors:Paul Koudounaris
Info:Thames & Hudson (2011), Hardcover, 224 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****1/2
Tags:history, reference, non-fiction

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

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This book is an astounding resource, and the first of its kind as far as I know. The sheer number and variety of ossuary sites described and depicted won't be found in any other book, and the text is very rigorous and detailed. Some might quibble with the over-reliance on Baudrillard's theories of death in the introduction, but the author puts these concepts to good use in describing the significance of ossuaries to the people who made them - they weren't chambers of horror, but sites where the living and the dead continued to relate to one another. Koudounaris also carefully distinguishes the evolving meanings of ossuaries and charnels in the different eras of history in which they appeared.

The photographs (by the author) are dazzling, and I'm in awe both of the effort it took to travel to and photograph all the sites, and the photographic skill of the images. On occasion I wished that, for sites where only one or two photographs appear, the photographs chosen had been more representative of the space as a whole instead of, perhaps, a dramatic angle into the eye socket of a skull. Also (with my arcitectural bias) I wished there was a bit more emphasis on the spatial qualities of the interiors; also a floor plan or two would have been nice to see. The author is an art historian, though, and usually describes the ossuaries as artworks rather than as architectural spaces primarily.

The book is gorgeously produced. The frontmatter says "Design and Art Direction by Barnbrook." Fabulous book, Barnbrook. I love the way you picked up the arrangements of skulls and bones in some of the more classicizing ossuaries and quoted those geometries in the page layouts. But...would it have KILLED you to use a slightly larger typeface? The dedicated reader will lose a few retinal cells in the effort to read the text portions of this book under any kind of ordinary light. And as for the few pages that have a red background - no. Just no.

With those quibbles aside - This book will knock your eyes out and absolutely fascinate you. I hope libraries everywhere will carry it too. If you feel like traveling to see any of these places for yourself, there is an appendix giving the location of each and information about how to visit them. ( )
  theparsley | Mar 24, 2016 |
Beautifully laid out book with elegant text and photographs. More substantial than a coffee table book, closer to a lengthy National Geographic article. The photographs alone make it worth picking up, and the text offers useful and interesting information. ( )
  vrwolf | Nov 25, 2012 |
This book is a stunningly gorgeous homage to the great ossuaries of Europe. Each page is covered in beautiful photographs and well-researched, passionate histories of charnel houses, memento mori, and the western world's changing attitudes towards death and what lies beyond it. Some readers may shy away from this book as macabre, but I'm certain that many others will embrace it, and be happy they did. ( )
  Literate.Ninja | Jul 18, 2012 |
"These sites were intended as statements of hope and beauty, and it was important to me that I find a means through photographs and the writing of history to convey that: these sites represent death only in so far as death itself affirms life.”

An utterly beautiful (if beautiful is the right word) coffee table book, lovingly put together that makes it a strong temptation for anyone interested in the history and varieties of ossuaries and charnel houses. Not only is it packed with full photos and tiny old paintings and postcards but it contains stunning layouts of text. Koudounaris writes a fascinating, well researched history of all the reasons and various reactions to them, the war memorials, the catholic reminders of death (the memento mori), the secular fashions, the slightly distasteful personal monuments.

I guess I don’t need to recommend it, you know if it’s your thing. From my perspective it almost makes me not want to be cremated, making up a gorgeous chandelier or creepy cloaked figure sounds much more fun :)

Photos over at: http://empiredelamort.com/ ( )
1 vote clfisha | Feb 21, 2012 |
Showing 4 of 4
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0500251789, Hardcover)

From bone fetishism in the ancient world to painted skulls in Austria and Bavaria: an unusual and compelling work of cultural history.

It is sometimes said that death is the last taboo, but it was not always so. For centuries, religious establishments constructed decorated ossuaries and charnel houses that stand as masterpieces of art created from human bone. These unique structures have been pushed into the footnotes of history; they were part of a dialogue with death that is now silent.

The sites in this specially photographed and 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 fantastic bone-encrusted creations in Austria, Cambodia, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Italy, Peru, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and elsewhere.

Paul Koudounaris photographed more than seventy sites for this book. He analyzes 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. 290 photographs, 260 in color

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:13 -0400)

Beginning in the early modern period and continuing to the 19th century, elaborately decorated charnels, tombs and chapels were constructed with the focus on human bone. This riveting book takes the reader on a tour of these macabre masterpieces with specially taken, arresting photographs and a commentary researched from a multitude of sources. It's a momento mori for our age.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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