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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

4.57 of 5 stars 4.57  ·  rating details  ·  141 ratings  ·  26 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 (first published January 1st 2011)
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Community Reviews

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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
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
Draga Corinthia
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 4 of 5 stars
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...more
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
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.
Carole Tyrrell
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...more
Frederic Gleach
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
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 3 of 5 stars
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
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
Awesome book. Putting some of the places on my European "to visit" list.
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
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...more
Jason Walker
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
Marzzz Mctarzzz
Loved everything about this book, from the photos, to the concise quality of the text, to the layout. Really liked the introduction, thought it was very thought provoking.
Sep 12, 2011 Brian marked it as to-read
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.
J.F. Penn
A combination of art, macabre obsession, European weirdness, death and history. Awesome!
Ann Marie
Amazing book with gorgeous photographs-glad I bought this one.
Excellent photos but the text leaves much to be desired.
Elizabeth Cole
Elizabeth Cole marked it as to-read
Sep 26, 2014
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Sep 24, 2014
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Sep 24, 2014
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