This Sunday, 17th November, is the feast day of Saint Mundita, a fourth century Christian martyr thought to have been beheaded in Rome on that date in the year 310 AD. Seventeen hundred years after her death, Mundita’s remains are enjoying an extended afterlife in Munich’s oldest and most beloved church, Peterskirche, near Marienplatz. Anyone who wants to encounter a dramatic example of the Catholic cult of saints’ relics is advised to visit.
Just walk along the side aisle to the left of the main altar, and about half way down you’ll see Mundita reclining in a decorative glass case. The years have been something of a mixed blessing. She is a little on the gaunt side, but, bejewelled in gold and silver, retains one of the most glamorous looks in a fashion-conscious city. Her head-dress is to die for, and tapers into an ornate neck collar that subtly covers the spot where the headsman’s axe helped her do precisely that. In her hand she grasps a vial of dried blood, symbol of her martyrdom.
Is it really Mundita?
In a recently published book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, Paul Koudounaris documents the history of the strange and darkly beautiful decorated relics from the Roman catacombs of which Mundita is a striking example.
A labyrinth of underground tombs was discovered in Rome in 1578, and was immediately declared to be a treasure trove of holy relics. Whether this was true, or the catacombs merely contained the remains of ordinary Romans, is open to question. The Reformation had just rocked the Catholic church to its core, however, and the Counter-Reformation needed weapons of mass instruction to wield against what it saw as the destructive iconoclasm of Protestantism. The bones of what were declared to be “catacomb saints” were carefully reassembled, adorned in spectacular costumes, jewels, wigs, crowns and armour and sent throughout Europe to inspire the faithful in the great religious struggles of the age.
Mundita’s relics – if it is Mundita – arrived in Munich from Rome in 1675, a few decades after Munich had distinguished itself on the Catholic side in the epic and terrible Thirty Years War, and have been on public display in the current location since 1883. She is the patron saint of single women, and also has her own dedicated Facebook site.
More disturbing and disturbingly beautiful images of haute couture death can be found here.
St. Peter’s Church can be seen on our daily Priceless Munich city walking tour.