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

4.53  ·  Rating Details  ·  222 Ratings  ·  34 Reviews
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.

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Hardcover, 224 pages
Published October 24th 2011 by Thames & Hudson
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,049)
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Jan 04, 2012 Matt rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, history
I bought “Empire of Death” for my brother for Christmas because I figured this would fit in nicely with his collection of taxidermic flying lizards, antique promotional flyers and headshots of circus performers, and other fascinating doodads that he seems to acquire for the sole purpose of littering his studio apartment. However, after he squealed with delight upon opening his gift (this is seriously the best thing I’ve ever bought him), I immediately snatched the book from him and spent the rem ...more
Nov 18, 2011 Anne rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Bill bought me this for Christmas. We've visited several ossuaries and the Paris catacombs and I always wanted to know how one Earth people started building things like that. This book was a wonderful cultural history of the subject with lots and lots of amazing photos. It explained the origins of the decorated churches and crypts, how they came to be, what they represented, the folklore and superstition of different areas and churches, how the local people related to the bones, and how the diff ...more
Draga Corinthia
Nov 24, 2011 Draga Corinthia rated it it was amazing
Wow, this book is outstanding, in terms of the photos, the production, and the research and clarity of the text. It is also a completely unique book--nothing like it has ever appeared that I have ever seen (and I am very interested and literate in subject matter involving both macabre art and religious art history/architecture). I have talked to other people who now own this book, and they are all of the same opinion. In fact, in many ways I think it introduces an entirely new area of study in t ...more
Apr 15, 2012 Alis rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Historians who study Remembrance, Possibly Tourists
This is a landmark book on ossuaries, especially decorative and architecturally arranged ones. It also has many fantastic pictures, some of which are not available on the web and the inside cover plots the ossuaries on a map. Aside from that, it's an attractive addition to any library in the hard-cover format.

Koudounaris’ argument seems to be that charnel houses created an arena for the dead and the living to communicate, which reached its height in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His g
Sep 15, 2013 John rated it liked it
Shelves: catholic-cults
Not a book about Florida in the 1980’s. Sorry guys. Great text about the renaissance era predilection for constructing elaborate ossuaries, or bone palaces. Monks all across Europe used human bones to create works of unparalleled splendor and gloominess. From holy mummies to bone chandeliers, these constructions are often awe inspiring. While the extensive photographic documentation of ossuaries is the star, the various essays dissecting the obsession many holy orders of the period had with huma ...more
As has been testified elsewhere, Paul Koudanaris' exploration of the historical anachronism known as the 'Ossuary' is, firstly, a work of exceptional beauty. His photographs of these places that are entirely morbid to many Western eyes, evincing second & third hand impressions of the Black Death & two World Wars (both times the Horseman of War is followed closely by Death, Plague and famine: the scarlet fever showing no mercy to the already ravaged nations who fought in the Great War: th ...more
Rayna  Del Rivas
Jul 11, 2015 Rayna Del Rivas rated it it was amazing
Everything about Empire of Death amazes me; the comprehensive, meticulous research by the author, the beautifully eerie photographs, the engaging, thoughtful text make for a very elegant and intelligent book for my collection. This is such a beautifully made book.

I am an avid graveyard enthusiast whose interest has bled over to ossuaries. I've only visited the Paris Catacombs and the Bone Cherch in Kutna Hora and was naturally curious about other sites. Koudounaris has whetted my appetite to vis
Sep 30, 2011 I-Ching marked it as to-read
I've met Paul K. several times before, and he's a notable figure-about-town -- but I didn't know that a)he is a Dr. with a PhD in Art History, and b)he wrote this incredible book. He had a reading & book signing last Saturday at La Luz de Jesus in Los Angeles, and I am sorry to have missed it (due to attending the graduation party of a friend receiving her M.A.!). Very much looking forward to seeing this piece of work.
M. A. P.
Dec 12, 2014 M. A. P. rated it it was amazing
I love this book! It's fascinating, extremely well written, all around beautifully produced, and absolutely worth it for the magnificent photography alone. The study covers a variety of areas, best of which (to me) were how the contemporary Western views on death have changed throughout history, and the myths and legends surrounding the bones in regards to their histories and assumed powers. I only wish there had been more to read on the latter subject matter in this book, but that isn't a compl ...more
Oct 24, 2014 Brian rated it really liked it
Shelves: hi-lo-culture
I saw a copy of this at the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle, It looks outstanding! Can't wait to get this.
Feb 11, 2014 David rated it it was amazing
Awesome book. Putting some of the places on my European "to visit" list.
Peter Jakobsen
Feb 22, 2015 Peter Jakobsen rated it really liked it
Shelves: tvc
Those who have gone before well outnumber those of the transitory present and are more swiftly forgotten. It is now overwhelmingly the fashion in Australia to incinerate the dead – burial is a considerable ongoing expense and the real estate is rented (in due course, urban cemeteries will reclaim the space). This incredible book shows and tells us of the veneration of the dead in 17C-19C catholic Europe (and parts of South America and south east Asia) in ossuaries and charnel houses. The picture ...more
Carole Tyrrell
Jan 14, 2013 Carole Tyrrell rated it really liked it
This is a fabulous looking book with wonderful photos accompanying the text. Try leaving it on your coffee table and see how many of your guests are tempted to pick it up. I had read an excerpt from this in Fortean Times and was impressed with the author’s research and he doesn’t disappoint in the full text.
He gives us an overview of the creation of ossuaries and charnel houses and their decline. Some have vanished but are still legendary and their creation are a useful reminder that previous ge
Amanda Quental
Apr 22, 2015 Amanda Quental rated it really liked it
Love the maps and that now when I travel I have places I can visit. Wish the photographs were of a better quality. They look like something a hobbyist would try and put out for sale and a fair or something, not the quality of a fine art photographer.
Frederic Gleach
Nov 29, 2013 Frederic Gleach rated it liked it
Shelves: photography
There's a lot of good information here, and some nice photos, but overall it left me wanting more. The book design - particularly the type size, but also layout - makes it something of a pain to try and read. The inclusion of non-traditional examples (e.g., the Cambodian memorial stupa for victims of the killing fields) is a nice touch, but suggests a completeness of global coverage that isn't really achieved. Much better is his Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the C ...more
Feb 22, 2015 Imara rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
"Thus far vanity, from here on eternity"

The author explains in a great way what ossuaries and charnels are and how different cultures over the world approach death through these settings. Religion is a great influence on this matter and all of those sacred places have other reasons for existence.

For those who love history and anthropology, I would recommend this book. The information reads really fluent and has a great deal of photographic pages, which makes it really interesting.

Personally, t
May 19, 2014 Seph rated it really liked it
Excellent subject & breathtaking photographs. Text is super tiny though and most people without perfect eyesight will have issue reading it without a magnifier.
Apr 05, 2014 Sam rated it liked it
Shelves: gothic
As beautifully researched, photographed and comprehensive as this work is, once you've seen one pile of bones you've seen them all.
D. A. Hosek
Apr 23, 2013 D. A. Hosek rated it liked it
A lavishly illustrated book, with monochrome pictures on every text page and more than enough color plates to satisfy the visual appetite. As a picture book, it's wonderful. As a book of text, on the other hand, it falls short on a few points. First, the choice of small type and light ink makes the book near-impossible to read in anything but ideal lighting conditions. As for the text itself, Koudounaris displays a good historical understanding of his subject, but fails at anything relating to C ...more
Colona Public Library
This book is a thrilling discovery! The pictures alone are gorgeous and I spent my time looking at them. This book would be the ideal coffee table book for visitors to look at and just be astounded by these beautiful bones.

I started reading the book but quickly gave up because I think the print is too small. There are big quotes so I skimmed through the book and read about what I found interesting. There also is an added map at the end which shows all the locations shown in the book.

You can ord
Jantine Zandbergen
Oct 16, 2014 Jantine Zandbergen rated it it was amazing
This book was one of my favorites before I even read it: the design and photography are stunning. I finally got around to actually reading it, and I'm glad I did. I love the background stories on the charnel houses (especially those of which I had the pleasure of visiting myself), the beliefs of the people who build them and the mysteries that surround them. The chapters are richly illustrated with historical drawings and photography , and the large picture pages with images the author took on t ...more
Mary Rose
This book is a wonderful exploration of the relationship between death and devotion that lead to the creation and proliferation of ossuaries and charnel houses. If you thought decorating churches with bones started and ended with that one chapel in the Czech Republic, you are in for a treat. I learned a lot and enjoyed the big, glossy pictures, so this was pretty much a perfect read. It also has a wonderful index of ossuaries and charnel houses in Europe if you're interested in going on a macabr ...more
Jun 10, 2012 noelle rated it it was amazing
Shelves: own, death
i kind of scoffed when i read someone's review claiming that the text left a little something to be desired, but they weren't wrong. it left me hungry for so much more. that said, what was there wasn't bad. insightful & concise, perfect to read in chunks. and the photographs! gorgeous. dreamy sigh goes here.

the text is ridiculously small and sometimes painful to read, especially black on dark red, but i'm not going to give the book a bad rating solely for that. just going to note that for a
Jason Walker
Sep 28, 2012 Jason Walker rated it really liked it
My only criticism of this book is the font color and size choice. I think it limits the readership. Otherwise, I have been to a few ossuaries and crypts in my travels but this book pulls together the history of how and why things like the Paris Crypts came to being and includes some theological basis for how relic hunting went from visiting the dead to keeping the dead in Europe through the middle of the last millennium. This is a fascinating read with outstanding photographs.
Apr 14, 2013 Jenny rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2013gaveup
Like everyone says this is a beautifully produced book, well researched and written. However the design of the book makes it virtually unreadable. Despite the book being very large there's tons of white space and the text is minuscule. On some pages the 6 pt black font is produced on dark red backgrounds. Did anyone consider someone might want to actually read this book instead of put it on their coffee table?
Christian Herro
Feb 28, 2013 Christian Herro rated it it was amazing
The sacred, the profane, death, bones. What's not to like? This book came to my attention via the greatest online magazine article ever: and it does not disappoint. The in-depth exploration of our history with death and fascination with the macabre is a rarely touched upon subject, but handled here with obvious care & passion.
Howard Junker
Mar 31, 2013 Howard Junker rated it it was amazing
Lavishly illustrated alternatives to burial (and fire), including the piles of bones in Cambodia.

Btw, "charnel house," pace Picasso et al, means "bone chamber (or chapel." The dead can lend themselves to arty presentations.

One reason to stack-em-up was that the land set aside for a cemetery was needed for new corpses——or had become too valuable to be allocated to Death.
May 02, 2012 Shenanitims rated it it was amazing
A gorgeous book. While it provides a nice historical overview of what ossuaries are, and what they were used for, that's not what you bought the book for. It's the oversized, glossy pictures that are the show, and Koudounaris provides. Fascinating to read as well as look at.
Rose Miller
Dec 29, 2015 Rose Miller rated it it was amazing
So far I've only flicked through this book, and truly, if that is all you are going to do, it's enough. The images are incredible and the book design is beautiful. I will read this though, and I'm very happy to have this in my home library.
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Paul Koudounaris is an author and photographer from Los Angeles. He has a PhD in Art History and his publications in the field of charnel house and ossuary research have made him a well-known figure in the field of macabre art and art history. He is a member of The Order of the Good Death.
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