Written by: Katy Meyers Emery
Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie
Following from our discussion on Tuesday, we’re going to be going through the history and context of three more sacred spaces decorated with bones. Following this we will be able to talk a little about the variety of practices and meaning behind the decorations.
1. Capuchin Crypt: As you’re walking through Rome, you may come upon the Santa Maria della Immacolata Concezione dei Cappuccini church. The church itself is beautiful and peaceful, but below it is the highly unique crypt for the Capuchin Monks. The church was commissioned in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII because his brother was a Capuchin monk. In 1631 the church was finally completed, and the monks, both living and deceased were brought there. 300 deceased friars were carried in carts to the new church so that they could be buried at their official church in Rome in the special crypt that was filled with soil from Jerusalem. The 300 deceased were used to decorate the walls of the crypt, and as monks died during the next centuries they would be laid to rest among the decorations. 30 years after their death, their remains would be removed from the biers and placed among the decorations.
The crypt is broken up into six spaces with different themes of life and death. The first is the Crypt of Resurrection, featuring a painting of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The displays in this room relate to this theme of renewal and life. The second room celebrates the Mass and does not contain any bones, though there is a plaque containing the heart of Maria Felice Peretti, the grand niece of Pope Sixtus V and a supporter of the order. It also contains the closed tomb of Papal Zouaves. Third is the crypt of the skulls, which is fairly self-explanatory- it is a room completely decorated with skulls and is quite amazing. There are some full skeletons of monks also featured in these rooms on the walls. Next, a similar room is the crypt of the pelvises. The fifth is the crypt of leg and thigh bones, featuring the tibia, fibula and femur. Finally, my favorite, the crypt of the three skeletons. The central skeleton is in an oval of bones, and is meant to symbolize life. In its right hand is a scythe, the symbol of death, and in the left are scales, symbolizing the balance of good and evil. At the center is a plaque which reads “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…” You can visit the crypt for 1 Euro, and make sure to bring long pants or a long skirt and shawl, you need to be modestly dressed to enter.
2. San Bernardino alle Ossa: In Milan, Italy, there is a church that is best known for a small chapel off to the side that contains the remains of numerous individuals. The church was first built in 1145, and in 1210 an extra room was added to the space to fill with bones after an adjacent cemetery ran out of space. Renovations of the church and chapel occurred in 1679, and it was at this point that Giovanni Andrea Biff decided to redo the bone room in order to make the stacks of remains more decorative. The walls of the ossuary are primarily decorated using skulls and tibiae to create bone crosses in each of the open spaces. These are framed by more bone decorations. The bones have traditionally been attributed to martyrs, but it is more likely they are patients of the ancient Ospedale del Brolo, the hospital, monks that operated the hospital, and from people who died in prison. According to legend, on the Day of the Dead (November 2) it is said that the bones of a little girl, found to the left of the altar, come back to life and will drag other skeletons back to life in a dance. You can visit the site for free!
In 1738, King John V of Portugal visited the bone chapel at San Bernardino alle Ossa, and was so emotinally affected by it that he decided to build one in Evora near Lisbon…
3. Capela dos Ossos: The Chapel of Bones, as it is translated in English, is the chapel that King John V had commissioned when he returned from San Bernardino. Around the area in the 16th century, there were 43 cemeteries which were taking up valuable farming land. The monks did not want to harm the souls of the people buried there, but the cemeteries needed to be moved. They decided to build a chapel and relocate bones there so that they would still be in a sacred location. Rather than just re-interring the bones behind closed door, the monks decided instead to display them- using San Bernardino’s chapel of bones as an exemplar. The hope for the monks was that this would send a clear message to viewers, and would help them meditate on the passage of life and how ephemeral material objects were. Above the chapel door reads “Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos,” or: “We bones that are here, for your bones we wait.” The goal was to get people to stop and consider why they worry so much about life and possessions when death is ever present.
The purpose of these decorations is not to scare people and it isn’t a morbid activity. First, it is practical- many of these spaces were created because there was overflow of skeletons from the local cemetery, or numerous skeletons were hoped to be placed within a small space. Second, this was an act of love, respect and honor to one’s relatives, ancestors, and country-men. Instead of leaving bones in piles, they chose to use them as part of a church, as part of decorations, and as a way to send an important message of the swiftness of life to its viewers. It can be difficult for modern viewers to grasp the beauty of these types of artwork due to the modern perception of death. Today, death is seen as a medical failure, not an inevitability. Therefore, the beauty of embracing death and remembering its coming isn’t something that is discussed or shared. These works were done not to disgrace the deceased, but to celebrate their lives and put the remains to use as art.