Tag Archives: Capuchin catacombs

The Most Morbid Cemeteries on Cemetery Travel

I don’t know if there’s a connection for sure, but the most morbid cemeteries on this blog are also the most often searched for.  Here they are in order of queries:

Week 15: The Capuchin Catacomb of Rome

Antique postcard of the Crypt of the Three Skeletons

Antique postcard of the Crypt of the Three Skeletons

Far and away the most popular post I’ve ever written on Cemetery Travel: Sometime in the 1700s, the bones of 4000 monks were arranged into butterflies, hourglasses, and the Grim Reaper himself in the crypt beneath Rome’s Church of the Immaculate Conception. The various rooms are known as the Crypt of the Skulls or the Crypt of the Pelvises, to help you identify the dominant decorative motif. When in Rome, this should not be missed.

Week #23: Aître Saint Maclou in Rouen, France

The Aître Saint Maclou

The Aître Saint Maclou

I was surprised how popular this little gem is, when it comes to queries on Cemetery Travel. Tucked in behind other buildings — and no longer full of bodies — the Atrium of St. Maclou is the only remaining medieval plague cloister still in existence. When the Black Plague struck Rouen in 1348, it wiped out three-quarters of the city’s inhabitants. To accommodate the dead, a new cemetery was built near the Church of Saint Maclou. Without regard to social standings, all bodies were dumped into the mass grave. When the plague returned in the 16th century, the earlier bodies were exhumed and stored in the surrounding cloister to make room for the new victims. It’s a lovely, peaceful little square — as long as you find the skulls, crossbones, coffins, and spades carved into the woodwork on all the buildings to be cheerful. I suppose it’s no surprise I do. Any day above ground is a good day.

Week #19: The Paris Municipal Ossuary in Paris, France

Cross of Skulls in the Paris Municipal Ossuary.

Cross of Skulls

Six million people, including victims of the French Revolution, were exhumed from the cemeteries of Paris by order of Napoleon. Their bones were transferred to this quarry beneath the city streets.  The doorway to the ossuary greets you with “Arrêtez. C’est ici l’empire de la mort.” The warning turned away Nazis, who never discovered the Resistance fighters and their radio hidden here. I spent one of the best birthdays of my life exploring the corridors full of bones and poetry.

Week #38: the Sedlec Ossuary (the Bone Chapel), Kutna Hora, the Czech Republic

My photo of the bone chalice in Kutna Hora.

My photo of the bone chalice in Kutna Hora.

In 1278, Abbot Heidenreich brought a jar of dirt back from the Holy Land to sanctify this little Cistercian graveyard. It soon became the most popular burying ground in Central Europe. People literally came to Kutna Hora to die. At the close of the 14th century, after the Bohemian brush with the Black Death, the monks exhumed the bones and stored them in their mortuary church, where they lingered until Frantisek Rint rearranged them in the 1860s. The decor includes a spectacular chandelier and a coat of arms, both made of bones. I spent another memorable birthday traveling just to see them.

Week #26: the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan

The Atomic Dome

The Atomic Dome

For my taste, the most morbid cemetery of them all is Ground Zero of the first atomic bomb. There were no bones left to display after most of the victims were vaporized by the blast, but those who were exhumed from the rubble or recovered from the river were cremated and reburied in a 12-foot-high tumulus which contains the remains of 70,000 people. The museum displays gruesome mementos that were all survivors could save of their loved ones. It’s an intense place, where school boys reached out to shake hands with my husband. There aren’t many cemeteries that bring me to tears, but this one did.

A Brand-New Book of Ossuaries

The Empire of Death

For my birthday last weekend, my husband Mason bought me a book I’d only seen mentioned on the internet.  We were in the Wacko store in Hollywood and I missed it the first time I looked over the rack, but he sent me back to give the highlighted new books another look.  That time, I picked up the book without even cracking its cover.  I wanted it so strongly that my arms quivered as I clutched it to my chest.

It’s called The Empire of Death:  A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses.  On its cover is an amazing photo of the bones of Saint Pancratius standing in gilded armor.  Inside it’s so full of color photos that the book is really heavy.  There are essays early charnel houses, the “Counter-Reformation Macabre,” “Spiritualism and Mythology in the Bone Pile,” and a chapter on “Ossuaries as Commemorative Sites,” which includes the skulls taken from Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

I waited to page through the book until we got back to our host’s house.  It’s filled on one amazing place after another.  There were a lot I’ve visited — the Cappuchin catacombs of Rome, the Bone Chapel of Kutna Hora, the Paris ossuary — but I’ve never gotten so close to the bones or taken such lovely photos.

There were so many, many places I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit: the mummies of Guanajuato, the Cappuchin catacombs in Palermo, and the catacombs of the monastery of San Francisco in Lima, Peru.  And all the places I’ve never heard of before:  the Capela dos Ossos in Campo Maior (Portugal), the Crypt of St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe (which I didn’t realize was in England), the Chapel of Skills in Czermna, Poland.  I was almost ill with envy that the author and photographer Paul Koudounaris had been able to take such a world-spanning journey to see so many lovely and thought-provoking things in person.

Some of the photos were intense, even for me: the plague crucifix covered in running sores, the bug-eaten corpses in the Chiesa dei Morti in Urbania.  I had a moment of vertigo as I tried to tally up all the skeletons displayed in these pictures.  There are a lot of dead people in this world on display.

There’s nothing like a memento mori to brighten a birthday.  The Empire of Death is one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever gotten.

You can travel to LA to get your copy from Wacko, or you can order one from Amazon: The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses.

The ossuaries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #15: The Capuchin Catacomb of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #19: The Paris Municipal Ossuary

Cemetery of the Week #23: Aître Saint Maclou

Cemetery of the Week #38: Sedlec Ossuary

Everything you wanted to know about Skulls and Skeletons

Skulls and Skeletons: Human Bone Collections and AccumulationsSkulls and Skeletons: Human Bone Collections and Accumulations by Christine Quigley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was waiting for someone to pull all this information together into one place! Quigley’s introductory chapter collects all the statistics about the factors (body makeup before death, burial practices, temperature, soil composition) which determine how long bones can survive. While all the facts and figures are scattered throughout a multitude of sources, this is the first time I’ve seen all the information laid out in a coherent, comprehensive fashion. That alone would be worth the price of the book.

But wait…are you curious about museums in the US and throughout the world that amass and analyze bones? Quigley quotes her copious correspondence with curators about their collections and the crises they face. She describes sacred spaces decorated with bones (full disclosure: even quoting my essay on the Bone Chapel of Kutna Hora from Morbid Curiosity #3), Hythe Church, the Paris Catacombs, St. Mary’s Monastery in Sinai, the Mütter Museum, the National Museums of Health and Medicine, and the Vietnamese trophy skulls brought back by American servicemen.

A great deal of the book discusses in various ways the impact of NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and its effect on collections of indigenous bones both in this country and elsewhere. While Quigley’s horror at the loss of the information contained in these native bones is quite clear, she doesn’t shy from the often horrific (and sometimes murderous) ways in which the native skeletons were collected. With so many collections in flux—or in jeopardy—across the world, Quigley’s book takes on an urgent sense of documenting a reservoir of information on the brink of evaporation.

Drawing on sources formerly reviewed in Morbid Curiosity and a vast array of personal correspondence, Quigley provides an invaluable compilation, ranging over topics from archaeology, defleshment and preparation of skeletons, the sale of human bones, institutions which collect and examine bones, the Bone Room, the Body Farm, historic sites (including the Little Bighorn battlefield and the Dickson Mounds Museum), the Cappuchin catacombs, etc., etc. You must own this book. You can pretty much open it to any page and become absorbed.

Get your own copy at Amazon: http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=cemettrave-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0786438886&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

This review initially appeared in Morbid Curiosity #6.

View all my reviews

You can follow Christine Quigley’s amazing and fascinating blog at Quigley’s Cabinet.

Cemetery of the Week #15: The Capuchin Catacomb of Rome

Antique postcard of the Crypt of the Three Skeletons

The Capuchin Catacomb of Rome
Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini
Via Vittorio Veneto, 27
Rome, Italy 00187
Telephone: 06/4871185
Decorations completed: 1764
Number of skeletons used to decorate the chapels: 4000
Size: 6 small rooms
Open: 9-noon, 3-6 p.m. Closed Thursdays.
Admission: small donation

From the Via Veneto, home of La Dolce Vita, the yellow brick church doesn’t look like much. One might expect that a centuries-old international tourist attraction like the crypt of the Church of the Immaculate Conception would have a multilingual sign. Instead, you must climb a flight of stairs to find a small plaque pointing toward the Coemeterium.

The Capuchin monks separated from other Franciscan monastic orders in 1525 AD. The Capuchins wanted to exist closer to the way St. Francis of Assisi lived in the 13th century. To that end, they wore sandals without socks and a simple brown tunic with a hood to cover their heads when the weather turned bad. The name Capuchin derives from this hood, called a capuce.

Capuchin monks gathered in houses near woods or green spaces, where they could meditate. They planted orchards, in which their work served as prayer. They cared for the poor, especially the sick. They continue those ministrations today.

In 1631, the Capuchins of Rome moved from their friary near where the Trevi Fountain now stands to land donated by Cardinal Barberini near his palace. The monks exhumed and brought with them bones of 4000 of their brethren. These bones were piled under their new church of Santa Maria della Concezione, in six rooms connected by a 60-meter corridor.

Sometime in the 1700s, arrangement of the bones began. Several theories exist about the identities of the decorators. Either they were French Capuchins who fled the Terror, or a notorious criminal who sought refuge with the monks and atoned for his crimes by positioning the bones, or a man of “ardent faith, who is almost joking with death,” as the official brochure suggests. The Marquis de Sade, who visited in 1775, suspected that a German priest arranged the bones.

These days, a painting of Christ leading Lazarus from the tomb still dominates the first room. Grasping his friend’s wrist, Christ tugs the revenant up from the ground. The former corpse is nearly naked: his shroud slips down beneath his buttocks. Turned away from the viewer toward his sisters and Christ, Lazarus’s expression is impossible to gauge. Lettered boldly in yellow at the bottom is the legend: “Lazare veni foras”: Lazarus, come forth.

It’s immediately apparent that the monks tried to use as many bones as possible, in order to fit everyone in. Skulls formed two triangular arches, beneath which lay the dusty mummies of two monks in tattered brown robes.

The next room — the only one on the corridor free of bones — serves as the cemetery’s mass chapel. Its altarpiece depicts Mary seated on a cloud. A toddler Jesus stands on her knee, his nakedness shielded a wisp of white fabric. With the help of three monks in brown robes and an angel in gray, they raise souls out of the flames of purgatory.

Next door, the Crypt of the Skulls is decorated with curved niches formed by arm and thighbones, supporting cornices of skulls. Inside each arch lay another dusty monk.

In the tympanum of the central niche hangs an hourglass made of two tailbones tip to tip. The bottom coccyx looks darker in color, as if the sands of time have all run down. A double row of very straight bones, perhaps somebody’s forearms, draws the hourglass’s case. Outside the case, four shoulder blades symbolize wings. While the message was certainly intended to be serious, the bone art seems lighthearted. Time flies, indeed.

Ornaments made of bones continue overhead. A garden of ribs suggests furrows of earth, where tulips bloom into single vertebrae. A chain formed by jawbones comes to a point, from which descends a lamp made from a sheaf of thighbones.

Next comes the Crypt of the Pelvises, followed by the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thighbones. That room’s centerpiece is two severed arms, lopped off at the shoulders and affixed to the back wall. The arm on top is bare; the other wears a rough brown sleeve. Their skin has dried to the color of paper ash. Instead of curled into fists, bones protrude through their outstretched fingertips. They represent the Franciscan coat of arms: the bare arm of Christ crossed over the robed arm of Francis of Assisi.

The final room, called the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, is the most ornately decorated. Complete skeletons of two children lounge over the altar made of pelvises on the back wall. The children reach up toward an adult skull. One child holds a short spear like a fishing pole. The other balances a winged hourglass atop his ribcage.

A third small skeleton lies flat against the ceiling. He holds a staff formed of shinbones crested with a blade of scapulae. In his other hand swings a scale whose cups are skullcaps, dangling from chains strung of finger bones. He is the least threatening death figure I’ve ever seen. Even his grin looks wistful.

Useful Links:

The official website.

Information on the Church above.

The Lonely Planet site has a map.

Other cemeteries in Rome worth visiting:

Cemetery of the Week #8: the Protestant Cemetery of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #29: the Pantheon

Cemetery of the Week #32: the Mausoleum of Augustus

Cemetery of the Week #67: the Catacomb of St. Sebastian