Stark emblems of mortality as building blocks
It’s the ultimate in recycling. In Renaissance Europe, long before the concept of organ donation could have been envisioned, cadavers were given a new life as architectural ornaments, and skeletons were put to use as building materials. The monk who started this fad must have been the Martha Stewart of his day. Why continue piling up bones in an ossuary when you could put them to practical use-or better yet, turn them into a thing of beauty? Thus began the oddest interior-decorating style in history: rooms made entirely of human bones. Soon Chapels of Bones were built in monasteries and churches throughout Europe, and the bizarre practice remained in vogue for an astounding four centuries.
One of the largest Chapels of Bones is in the Portuguese city of Evora, at the Church of St. Francis. Built by Franciscan monks between 1460 and 1510, the chapel is constructed of the bones of some 5,000 people. Tourists to the site find the macabre mood is set immediately with the inscription above the entrance that carries a ghoulish message to visitors: “We bones that are here are waiting for yours.” Inside the dimly lit chapel, it takes a moment to realize that the interior walls and the pillars supporting the arched ceiling are composed entirely of neatly stacked leg bones, arm bones, and skulls. Once the shock of this realization subsides, visitors begin to appreciate the almost comical sight of hundreds of skulls lined up, jaw-to-cranium, to make borders around the sections of vaulted ceiling. The artwork on the ceiling continues the combination of weirdness and whimsy: curly-haired cherubs hover above painted skulls-and-crossbones, and scythes are interspersed with elegant flowers. A statue of Jesus and an ornate, gilded altar are overshadowed by the chapel’s most gruesome decoration: two desiccated corpses hanging on a side wall. The bodies of a man and a small child are now several hundred years old, but there are still skin and shreds of clothing clinging to their pathetic frames. According to a tour guide, the man was a wife abuser, and his little son was just as disrespectful to his mother. The man finally beat his wife to death, but before she succumbed, she put a curse on her husband and child. She declared that they would soon follow her in death, but, since they were so evil, even Hell would not accept them. As she predicted, the pair soon died. When they were to be buried, the ground mysteriously turned hard as a rock, and their graves could not be dug. So, the monks took their bodies and put them on permanent display in the chapel, as a warning to other wife abusers and bad children. Whether true or not, the legend shows the Franciscan monks to have been feminists before their time. In recognition of this, local women engaged to be married cut off their hair and place the braids at the chapel entrance, making a symbolic sacrifice of their girlhood in supplication for a happy marriage. This custom continues today, with several fresh braids on display.
Other enduring legends of the Evora Chapel of Bones have evolved over the identity of the 5,000 skeletons. One story says they were victims of the Black Plague; another says they were executed by the Inquisition; while yet another maintains that they were soldiers who died in battle. The truth, of course, is far less romantic: They were denizens of local cemeteries facing eviction. Evora went through a building boom in the late 1400s. Noblemen from Lisbon, less than 100 miles away, found that the area was good for hunting. They invited their friends to vacation at their hunting lodges, and before long all the glitterati from the capital were buying up huge tracts of land, on which they built vast country estates. The local monks worried about the rampant construction encroaching on the area’s ancient burying grounds. They dug up the remains as a protective measure, and decided they would not only keep the bones safe within their church, but use them to glorify God as well. And so the chapel was built, as a place of meditation and prayer for the Franciscans.
More than 300 years later, the same situation occurred in another Portuguese city. In 1816, when construction threatened a monastery cemetery in the seaside resort of Faro, the monks there dug up their brothers’ bones and built a chapel out of them in the garden behind the Carmo Church. With only 1,250 skeletons to work with, the Faro chapel is much smaller than Evora’s Chapel of Bones. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in integrity, for every inch of the Carmo chapel-even the altar and the barrel-vaulted ceiling-is made entirely of bones and skulls. The floor is composed of flat gravestones covering still more bodies. Yet the small chapel is brighter, more cheerful, cuter somehow than Evora’s-and thankfully, no murderer is displayed on its walls.