God’s waiting room: residents of Naples still tend to paupers’ remains in the Fontanelle ossuary. Photo: Contrasto
Show Hide image

The Fontanelle ossuary: in Naples’ stacks of skulls, all men are equal

The bones housed in the Fontanelle ossuary speak to the conviction that the obscure deserve comemmoration, too.

The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity
Peter Brown
Harvard University Press, 288pp, £18.95

In Naples, the poor have always lived among the dead. Caves carved out from the soft tufa on which the city was founded bear witness to millennia of both settlement and tombs. In 1656, when plague struck the densely packed tenements of a district beyond the city walls called the Valley of the Dead, a vast and ancient quarry was appropriated to serve as a charnel house.

Two hundred years later, the Fontanelle, as it was known, had become an immense jumble of bones and skulls, piled in the gloom of the caves. To Gaetano Barbati, a local priest, this cemetery, filled with the skeletons of paupers, despised and forgotten in death just as they had been in life, offered a standing reproach. So, in 1872, he set to ordering their remains. To him and to the poor who lived beside the Fontanelle the dead housed in the ossuary were potential saints: souls which, once purged of their sins in the afterlife, might intercede with Christ for the living. The duty of care paid to the remains of the indigent promised, in the opinion of those who performed it, nothing less than a chance of heaven.

It was not only visitors to Naples who were liable to find this cult shocking. In 1969, the archbishop of the city officially denounced it as fetishism. Yet the spectacle of rows upon rows of skulls, neatly and lovingly stacked in the Fontanelle, is at least as moving as it is unsettling. It speaks powerfully of an ideal that it is not necessary to be a Catholic, or even a Christian, to admire: the conviction that the obscure no less than the great deserve commemoration. Indeed, it is the implication of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, told in Luke’s Gospel, that the poor are likelier than the rich to end up clasped to Abraham’s bosom. The Christian heaven, as it has long existed in the imagination, is thoroughly democratic. It is not a place where the hierarchies that, in the fallen world, had condemned the indigent of Naples to their lives of poverty and hunger, and ultimately to a pauper’s grave, are replicated. In heaven, so most Christians often assume, all souls rank as equal.

This, however, has not always been the case. During the early years of Christianity, the understanding of the afterlife was very different. Peter Brown, in the opening pages of his book The Ransom of the Soul, introduces us to Julian, an archbishop of Toledo who, in the late 7th century, compiled from earlier Christian authors an anthology of writings on the fate of the soul. The result, A Medical Report on the Future World, was a huge bestseller throughout the Middle Ages, and articulates numerous presumptions that are familiar to Christians today; and yet, as Brown engagingly puts it, had its author met many of those whom he cites, “they might have struck him, despite their common Christianity, as strange, almost Jurassic creatures from a world very different from his own”. The afterlife was one of the many aspects of Christianity that had evolved over the course of the faith’s first centuries. Just as Lazarus, in the parable, was gathered up into Abraham’s bosom rather than going straight to heaven, so would most souls, the early Christians believed, be held in an equivalent of a station waiting room until the Day of Judgement. Only martyrs were exceptions. They and they alone passed directly into paradise. In death as in life, there was an elite.

The story of why Christians ceased to believe that most souls “should, as it were, mark time before entering heaven”, and how a recognisably medieval conception of the afterlife came to evolve, is the subject of Brown’s slim but revelatory book. As in his previous work of history, Through the Eye of a Needle, so his theme in The Ransom of the Soul turns out to have much to do with money. Sin, in the monetised world of the Roman Mediterranean, came to be envisaged as a kind of debt. The devil was increasingly cast as a “Scrooge-like accountant”, complete with ominous ledger-book, while God was imagined as a generous creditor, ever capable of waiving sinners’ arrears. Yet how best to ensure that a sinner’s debt was indeed wiped clean in the afterlife? In late antiquity, opinion on that was divided; and only gradually, in the Latin west, did a definitive answer evolve.

Perhaps, some Christians wondered, benefit might derive from waiting for the Day of Judgement beside a martyr? In Naples, on the opposite side of the valley from the Fontanelle Cemetery, there is a catacomb that once contained the mortal remains of the city’s patron saint: Januarius, a bishop put to death for his faith. In the 4th and 5th centuries, following the legalisation of Christianity, the rich were increasingly prepared to pay for the privilege of being buried in the tutelary presence of such a man – with the result, predictably, that the catacomb ended up colonised by their graves. Yet when the bishop of the neighbouring city of Nola wrote in 420 to a colleague in North Africa, asking for his approval of this practice, the reply could hardly have been more of a rebuff. “Burial beside the saints did nothing whatsoever for the soul.” Such was the blunt and ultimately decisive verdict of the theologian who, more than any other, served to set the Christian west on its distinctive course: Augustine of Hippo.

“We should not only pray, but give alms.” Augustine’s concern, in giving this advice, was with the salvation of the vast mass of ordinary Christians. Rather than dispose of worldly goods altogether, as urged by Pelagius, his greatest rival in the field of theology, he urged the faithful to give money to the poor in a quotidian routine of charity. Daily life was defined in his writings as a continuous attempt to stop the bark of the soul from sinking. “It took place against the noise of the steady creak of the bilge pump of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.” The dead as well as the living were implicated in this struggle to keep the soul afloat. As Brown demonstrates, moving from Augustine’s Africa to post-Roman Gaul, both needed each other. The bond between them, which even today prompts worshippers in the Fontanelle Cemetery to tend to the skulls arrayed there, “constantly cemented by the rituals of the Church, became a cosmos of its own – a subject of deep preoccupation, the stuff of visions, and the object of the regular prayers and donations of millions”.

With a lifetime of study and reflection behind him, there is no one better at tracing the process of such change than Peter Brown. The Ransom of the Soul shows him to be as sparkling as ever; and it takes us, as his books always do, on a tour of depths that he is uniquely qualified to explore. The outward turn of events, be it the fall of empires or the founding of kingdoms, snarls and swirls on the surface like Neapolitan traffic; but deep underground, lit by flickering torches, there are frescoes, and ancient graves, and rows of skulls to be found. How fortunate we are to have Brown as our guide to them. 

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

Pompidou Centre
Show Hide image

Harry Styles: What can three blank Instagram posts tell us about music promotion?

Do the One Direction star’s latest posts tell us about the future of music promotion in the social media age - or take us back to a bygone era?

Yesterday, Harry Styles posted three identical, captionless blank images to Instagram. He offered no explanation on any other social network, and left no clue via location serves or tagged accounts as to what the pictures might mean. There was nothing about any of the individual images that suggested they might have significance beyond their surface existence.

And, predictably, they brought in over a million likes – and thousands of Styles fans decoding them with the forensic dedication of the cast of Silent Witness.

Of course, the Instagrams are deliberately provocative in their vagueness. They reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s three-panelled White Painting (1951), or Robert Ryman’s Untitled, three square blank canvases that hang in the Pompidou Centre. The composer John Cage claimed that the significance of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings lay in their status as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. The significance of Styles’s Instagrams arguably, too, only gain cultural relevance as his audience engages with them.

So what did fans make of the cryptic posts? Some posited a modelling career announcement would follow, others theorised that it was a nod to a Taylor Swift song “Blank Space”, and that the former couple would soon confirm they were back together. Still more thought this suggested an oncoming solo album launch.

You can understand why a solo album launch would be on the tip of most fans’ tongues. Instagram has become a popular platform for the cryptic musical announcement — In April, Beyoncé teased Lemonade’s world premiere with a short Instagram video – keeping her face, and the significance behind the title Lemonade, hidden.

Creating a void is often seen as the ultimate way to tease fans and whet appetites. In June last year, The 1975 temporarily deleted their Instagram, a key platform in building the band’s grungy, black and white brand, in the lead up to the announcement of their second album, which involved a shift in aesthetic to pastel pinks and bright neons.

The Weekend wiped his, too, just last week – ahead of the release of his new single “Starboy”. Blank Instagrams are popular across the network. Jaden Smith has posted hundreds of them, seemingly with no wider philosophical point behind them, though he did tweet in April last year, “Instagram Is A BlackHole Of Time And Energy.”

The motive behind Harry’s blank posts perhaps seems somewhat anticlimactic – an interview with magazine Another Man, and three covers, with three different hairstyles, to go along with it. But presumably the interview coincides with the promotion of something new – hopefully, something other than his new film Dunkirk and the latest update on his beloved tresses. In fact, those blank Instagrams could lead to a surprisingly traditional form of celebrity announcement – one that surfaces to the world via the print press.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.