Évora, Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore, Capela dos Ossos, Capuchin Crypt, Carlo Giuseppe Merlo, Church of Santa Maria della Concezione del Cappuccini, Giovanni Andrea Biffi, Great Plague of Milan, Mark Twain, Milan, Pope Urban VIII, Portugal, Rome, San Bernardino alle Ossa, San Bernardino of Sienna, Sebastiano Ricci
I prefer Milan’s bone house to Rome’s.
Rome’s famous Capuchin Crypt attracts the tourists, but Milan’s ossuary chapel at San Bernardino alle Ossa more than satisfies the macabre imagination – and it’s free. Today, the ossuary of San Bernardino alle Ossa is a seventeenth-century square chapel whose interior walls are almost entirely covered with the bones of the Milanese dead – mostly prisoners, monks and hospital patients.
In 1145, a hospital – and soon afterwards a cemetery – was built adjacent to the Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore. In 1210, once the cemetery became full, the first ossuary was built to accommodate the growing pile of bones, and in 1268, a small chapel was added to the ossuary. In 1642, the church tower of the Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore collapsed, causing extensive damage to the thirteenth-century complex. The hospital closed in 1652.
The current ossuary, finished in 1695, was designed in the rococo style by Giovanni Andrea Biffi (d. 1630). Its interior walls were decorated with five hundred years of human bones, including fresh victims of the Great Plague of Milan (1629-1631). The ceiling fresco, Triumph of Souls and Flying Angels, is the work of Sebastiano Ricci (d. 1734). As reviews go, the chapel at San Bernardino alle Ossa has been described as successfully blending a sense of the macabre with the grace of the rococo.
Imitation is flattery especially for ossuaries: Milan’s bone house inspired the Capela dos Ossos in Évora, Portugal.
‘Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos’
‘We bones that are here, for your bones we wait’
– Capela dos Ossos, Évora, Portugal
Mark Twain makes no mention of San Bernardino alle Ossa in the account of his 1867 visit to Milan. He captured, though, his impressions of Rome’s Capuchin Crypt, located underneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione del Cappuccini.
The crypt contains the skeletal remains of some four thousand Capuchin friars. Its floor is covered in dirt from the Holy Land brought to Rome upon the orders of Pope Urban VIII (d. 1644). Rome’s skeletal Capuchins lay in wait for the final Resurrection, half buried in the sacred soil of the Holy Land. They couldn’t be happier.
According to Twain:
‘Here [at the Capuchin Crypt] was a spectacle for sensitive nerves! . . . There were six divisions in the apartment, and each division was ornamented with a style of decoration peculiar to itself – and these decorations were in every instance formed of human bones!
‘There were shapely arches, built wholly of thigh bones; there were startling pyramids, built wholly of grinning skulls; there were quaint architectural structures of various kinds, built of shin bones and the bones of the arm; on the wall were elaborate frescoes, whose curving vines were made of knotted human vertebrae; whose delicate tendrils were made of sinews and tendons; whose flowers were formed of knee-caps and toe-nails.
‘Every lasting portion of the human frame was represented in these intricate designs, and there was a careful finish about the work, and an attention to details that betrayed the artist’s love of his labors as well as his schooled ability. I asked the good-natured monk who accompanied us, who did this? And he said, “We did it” – meaning himself and his brethren upstairs. I could see that the old friar took a high pride in his curious show. We made him talkative by exhibiting an interest we never betrayed to guides.
“Who were these people?”
“We – up stairs – monks of the Capuchin order – my brethren.”
“How many departed monks were required to upholster these six parlors?”
“These are the bones of four thousand.”
“It took a long time to get enough?”
“Many, many centuries.”
“Their different parts are well separated – skulls in one room, legs in another, ribs in another – there would be stirring times here for a while if the last trump should blow. Some of the brethren might get hold of the wrong leg, in the confusion, and the wrong skull, and find themselves limping, and looking through eyes that were wider apart or closer together than they were used to. You cannot tell any of these parties apart, I suppose?”
“Oh, yes, I know many of them.”
He put his finger on a skull. “This was Brother Anselmo – dead three hundred years – a good man.”
He touched another. “This was Brother Alexander – dead two hundred and eighty years. This was Brother Carlo – dead about as long.”
Then he took a skull and held it in his hand, and looked reflectively upon it.
“This,” he said, “was Brother Thomas.
This business-like way of illustrating a touching story of the heart by laying the several fragments of the lover before us and naming them, was as grotesque a performance, and as ghastly, as any I ever witnessed. I hardly knew whether to smile or shudder. . . .
I asked the monk if all the brethren up stairs expected to be put in this place when they died. He answered quietly:
“We must all lie here at last.” . . . I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present.
Here and there, in ornamental alcoves, stretched upon beds of bones, lay dead and dried-up monks, with lank frames dressed in the black robes one sees ordinarily upon priests. We examined one closely. The skinny hands were clasped upon the breast; two lusterless tufts of hair stuck to the skull; the skin was brown and sunken; it stretched tightly over the cheek bones and made them stand out sharply; the crisp dead eyes were deep in the sockets; the nostrils were painfully prominent, the end of the nose being gone; the lips had shriveled away from the yellow teeth: and brought down to us through the circling years, and petrified there, was a weird laugh a full century old!
Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad
A short Italian video on San Bernardino alle Ossa provides a great introduction to the church.
Milan’s San Bernardino alle Ossa and Rome’s Capuchin Crypt make every short list of the world’s top bone chapels.