Tag Archives: crypt

Cemetery of the Week #173: the Crypt of Our Lady of the Angels

 

The Cathedral Mausoleum at Our Lady of the Angels
Also known as the Crypt of the LA Cathedral or the Saint Vibiana Chapel Mausoleum
Address: 555 West Temple Street, Los Angeles, California 90012
Phone: 213-680-5200
Dedicated: September 2002
Number interred: 395, according to Findagrave

Note: the Cathedral Mausoleum remains closed at the moment, due to Covid-19 restrictions. Please check the Cathedral’s website or call before you visit to make sure it’s reopened.

In 1996, the Diocese of Los Angeles chose a downtown parking lot overlooking the Hollywood Freeway as the site of its new cathedral. Named for the city’s namesake, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was dedicated on September 2, 2002. It serves as the mother church to approximately five million professed Catholics in the archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Sealed into the floor around the altar are 26 relics, including Saints Benedict, Catherine of Sienna, Charles Lwanga, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Francis of Assisi, Gregory the Great, John Neumann, Martin de Porres, Patrick of Ireland, Rose of Lima, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (the first Native American saint), and Junipero Serra, who founded the Spanish missions in California in the 18th century.

In the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe hangs a reliquary with a fragment of the cloak worn by Saint Juan Diego that was miraculously stamped with Mary’s image when she visited him. The postage stamp-sized relic may be the only one of its kind in the United States. It was given by the archbishop of Mexico City to the archbishop of Los Angeles in 1941.

In the Chapel of Saint Vibiana, in the crypt below the church, rest the bones of a third-century Christian martyr whose grave was discovered in the Pretestato Catacombs near Rome’s Appian Way in December 1853. The original grave was sealed with a marble tablet which was marked with a laurel wreath, which indicated she was a martyr for her faith. Also in the alcove was a rose-colored vial, believed to contain dried blood. Despite a lack of history or miracles, Pope Pius IX canonized her as a Roman-era Virgin in 1854.

Vibiana’s bones were encased in a wax effigy. Bishop Thaddeus Amat, charged with overseeing all of California south of Monterey, took her relics on an eight-month tour before they arrived in Santa Barbara. Sometime in the 1860s, her reliquary was installed in Los Angeles. The Italian Baroque cathedral of Saint Vibiana was dedicated in her name in 1871.

In the 1950s, the Vatican dropped Vibiana’s feast day from the liturgical calendar for lack of historical information. In 1976, her relics were removed from public view and entombed in a marble sarcophagus. In 1994, the Northridge Earthquake caused damage to her cathedral and the diocese of LA took the opportunity to build Our Lady of the Angels. Vibiana’s, which had been named a City Landmark in 1963, was deconsecrated and is now available for rent as a wedding venue.

The construction of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was overseen by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, LA’s first native Angeleno archbishop, who was made a cardinal in 1991. A burial place is reserved for him in the crypt.

The Crypt Mausoleum of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels lies one floor beneath the cathedral itself. It can be reached via the stairway or elevators at the rear of the Cathedral Church. The mausoleum is surprisingly large, containing some 1300 interment “crypts” and 5000 cremation niches, most of them empty at this time. Its walls are faced with polished Spanish limestone, lit by alabaster sconces.

It features 16 large baroque revival stained glass windows and 9 lunettes, brought from the original St. Vibiana Cathedral. The windows were created by the Franz Mayer Company in Munich in the early 1920s and restored by Judson Studios before being placed in the crypt. Since they are underground, they are lit from behind.

In the crypt stands a chapel dedicated to St. Vibiana. The altar was refashioned from the marble altar of her cathedral. The brightly painted stations of the cross came from St. Basil Church in LA. A marble sarcophagus contains Vibiana’s bones, still in their wax effigy. A replica of the plaque that marked her original grave hangs nearby, inscribed “To the soul of the innocent and pure Vibiana.” She remains the patron saint of Los Angeles.

Buried in the Bishops’ Crypt are Thaddeus Amat y Brusi (the first Bishop of Los Angeles, who brought Vibiana’s relics to LA), John Cantwell (the first Archbishop of Los Angeles), Bishop Thomas James Conaty (who oversaw the restoration of the California missions in the early 20th century), Bishop Carl Anthony Fisher (the first Black bishop on the West Coast), James Francis McIntyre (the controversial second Archbishop of Los Angeles, who became a cardinal), Bishop Juan Alfredo Arzube (born in Ecuador), and John J. Ward (who served in the Vatican II discussions). Several of them had been buried at St. Vibiana’s Cathedral before being reinterred here.

Other bishops have cenotaphs to their memories, including Bishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany, who was sent to Northern California during the Gold Rush. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery Mausoleum in Colma, California, south of San Francisco.

The most famous person buried in the Crypt Mausoleum is actor Gregory Peck, best remembered for playing Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, for which he won an Academy Award. Peck was nominated five times for the Oscar and received the Academy’s humanitarian award in 1968. He served as president of the Motion Picture Academy and was active in the American Cancer Society, National Endowment for the Arts, and many other causes. He died in his sleep in 2003. He’s buried in the crypt beside his wife, philanthropist Veronique Peck, who followed him in 2012. Their epitaph crosses the front of both grave plaques. His says, “Together” and hers “Forever.”

Actress Joan Marlowe (born Gisela Goetten) was billed by Warner Bros. as “the most beautiful girl on the screen.” She appeared in the Rin Tin Tin movies, acted opposite John Barrymore in “Don Juan,” and played a recurring role in the “Our Gang” shorts as the teacher Miss Crabtree. She also appeared in the first Laurel and Hardy movie, “Pardon Us.” After she married in 1933, she stopped acting in films. Initially buried in San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, she was moved to the LA Cathedral crypt and interred behind the epitaph, “Help thy brother’s boat across and Lo! Thine own has reached the shore.”

Actress Helen Wagner was best known for playing Nancy Hughes in the soap opera “As the World Turns.” She spoke the first line on the show in 1956 and continued playing the part until a month before her death in 2010. She’s credited in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest-playing of a single role. Her husband, producer Robert Wiley, is also buried in the Cathedral Mausoleum.

Buried near the papal cross beneath the cathedral’s altar is Bernardine Murphy Donohue, who was rewarded for her Catholic philanthropy by being made a papal countess by Pope John XXIII. After her death, her family’s mansion was donated to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary as a retreat house.

Useful Links:
Map to the cathedral: https://catholiccm.org/cathedral-of-our-lady-of-the-angels-mausoleum
The Cathedral Mausoleum: http://www.olacathedral.org/cathedral/mausoleum/about1.html
The Cathedral homepage: http://www.olacathedral.org/
LA Time article “The Crypts that Keep on Giving”: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2002-feb-08-mn-26916-story.html
Findagrave: https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/1543836/cathedral-of-our-lady-of-the-angels

My reviews of books related to this cemetery:

Laid to Rest in California: https://cemeterytravel.com/2011/05/05/cemeteries-paparazzi-style/

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels guidebook: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3908630237

Other graveyards of the Hollywood stars on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #5: Hollywood Forever

Cemetery of the Week #14: the Original Forest Lawn

Cemetery of the Week #40: Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #45: Hillside Memorial Park

Cemetery of the Week #51: Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #110: Holy Cross Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #168: the New Haven Crypt

IMG_0181The New Haven Crypt
Center Church on the Green
250 Temple Street
New Haven, Connecticut 06511
Founded: late 1600s
Closed: 1821
Size: small
Number of interments: an estimated 1,000 people are buried here
Tours: can be scheduled at (203) 787-0121.

Originally people in New Haven, Connecticut were buried in the green in the center of town. The space started to be used as a burial ground by settlers of the New Haven Colony in the 1600s. Estimates range from 5-10,000 people were buried there before 1821, when the Grove Street Cemetery opened nearby.  At that point, headstones were moved to the new cemetery, but the bodies were left in place below the sod in the Green.

The original First Church of Christ in New Haven was built on a corner of the Green in 1639.  It was rebuilt twice in the same place, but when the congregation voted to expand their meeting house, there was no open space on the Green.  Instead, they decided to build on pilings above part of the graveyard on the Green. Construction of Center Church began in 1812 and was completed in 1814.

IMG_0137The graves beneath the church were left in their original places and enclosed in what’s called a crypt, even though it stands at ground level.  The surviving stones date from 1687 to 1812 and have been called the “last remaining evidence on the New Haven Green of the first colonists who settled here to establish a new life in America.”

IMG_0132An estimated 1000 people (or perhaps more) are buried beneath the church. Plaques inside the church’s foyer list names and death dates of people known to be buried in the crypt. In those days, it was common for a family to reuse the same name for a child over and over in the same generation until one of them finally survived to adulthood.

The first map of the crypt was made by Henry Trowbridge in 1880. 139 gravestones survive inside the crypt, some of which have been rendered illegible by time. The oldest stone marks the grave of Sarah Rutherford Trowbridge, who died in 1687.

Originally the floor of the crypt was dirt, which was replaced by concrete as a way to control the damp. In 1985, they (who?) realized that the concrete was too successful in trapping moisture beneath it. The gravestones were acting as wicks, pulling the moisture upward, which was leading to degradation of the stone.  In 1990, the concrete was broken up and removed by being passed though the little windows to the Green outside. Walkways of unmortared bricks were laid between the stones, allowing them to breathe.

IMG_0159IMG_0146IMG_0161IMG_0169

The ceiling is low down there. At one point there was talk of lowering the floor so there would be more room, but the bodies are not actually buried very deeply.  In the end, the decision was made to leave the skeletons in place. The crypt is plenty bright enough, but it did make me feel slightly claustrophobic when all our tour group gathered in one area.

Among those buried here include Benedict Arnold’s first wife, Margaret; the family of President Rutherford B. Hayes; Reverend James Pierpont, a founder of Yale College, and many more. One of the stones remembers Sarah Whiting, “the painful mother of eight children, of whom six survive.” When she died in 1726, she was called “fruitful, virtuous, and weary.”

The New Haven Crypt Association preserves the site, trains volunteers as tour guides, and offers public tours most Saturdays from April to October from 11 am to 1 pm.

Outside the church is a cenotaph in honor of Theophilus Eaton, first governor of the New Haven Colony, who served for 19 years. He was also a founder of the First Church of Christ, from which Center Church derived, and is buried beneath the church’s foundation. The large marble plaque was placed on the church by the city when the gravestones were removed from the Green.

IMG_0179In what’s left of the churchyard, there are also plaques for General Edward Whalley and Goffe, two “regicides” who fled to New Haven to escape execution. Whalley and William Goffe signed the death warrant for King Charles I during the English Civil War. A tall monument remembers John Dixwell, one of the Regicide Judges, who settled in New Haven in 1665 under an assumed name.

Useful links:

A history of the Crypt on the Center Church site: http://centerchurchonthegreen.org/history/crypt/

Tales from the Crypt: https://ctcryptkeeper.wordpress.com/

Facebook page of the New Haven Crypt Association: https://www.facebook.com/newhavencrypt/

The Findagrave page: https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/1069578/center-church-on-the-green-churchyard

I meant to say that I know of at least one other church built above an earlier graveyard in the US. The graveyard where Edgar Allan Poe is buried in Baltimore has a church up on piers above the graves:  https://cemeterytravel.com/2013/10/09/cemetery-of-the-week-110-westminster-hall-burying-ground/

The Ossuary as Memento Mori

Memento MoriMemento Mori by Bohdan Chlibec

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My husband Mason bought me this beautiful book at the Franz Kafka Bookstore on the Old Town Square in Prague. It’s listed on Amazon.com for $140, but let me tell you, this is one beautiful book!

Memento Mori focuses solely on the Sedlec ossuary outside of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic. In 44 plates, the book obsessively documents the Church of All Saints and the bone decor inside. Each photograph floats atop a deeply black mat and is faced by a stark white page, so your attention is focused again and again on the exquisite artistry with which Rint organized the dead.

The photographers were given over a year, using only natural light, to capture the images in these black and white photos. The long exposures required to shoot the dim ossuary give the bones — especially the skulls — a luminous quality. Often it seems that a spiritual glow infuses the images, radiating from the bones themselves or streaming in through the opaque windows. The photographs imply that this is a holy space.

The photographers were allowed access unavailable to your average tourist with a $2 photo pass. They slipped behind the iron grates fencing off the pyramids to reveal the cant of disintegrating geometry as the skulls rolled out of place. They climbed over the rail into the sacred alcove to shoot the monstrance lens to eye socket. They documented cobwebs and shattered skulls and the crumbling plaster of the walls, revealing the sadness and decay behind the breathtaking chandelier and chalice. Words are unnecessary when you view these photographs.

However, explanatory text is provided. First in Czech, then in English, finally in German, the essayists address the chronicle of the ossuary and debate the impact of its artistry. In his first essay, Mojmír Horyna details the history of the Cistercian order and discusses the artistic motifs of the ossuary design. He finds that the skull and crossbones is the most effective compositional element of the ossuary. In fact, garlands of skulls and crossbones do swoop across the groined ceiling of the church. However, Horyna claims that Rint’s “Romantic” decoration transformed the church into the empire of death triumphant, having stripped the “vanity of life of its beauty and joy.” I can’t disagree with him more. I found the ossuary almost indescribably beautiful. My confrontation with all those skulls left me feeling buoyed, full of joy that I am still alive. Perhaps there’s a large gap in our ages?

I suspect from his second essay (“Place of the Triumph of Death and of Hope in the Resurrection”), Horyna is a staunch Catholic, and perhaps a priest. He discusses briefly the 19th century slogans of praxis and will, defining the Romantic Movement as fascinated and horrified by death. He claims Rint “tuned” the ossuary “into the macabre tones of a hymn of death.” Proceeding onward, he claims that the modern pilgrim cannot possibly discover the ossuary in the manner in which it was intended. He’s pissed that the space is now a tourist attraction, to which modern visitors are drawn by curiosity. “Mass curiosity,” he writes, “operating under the slogan of demands for access to all facts, for the abolition of all secrets, and for the right to easy knowledge which, of necessity is superficial, leads to the banalisation of the world.” Whoa, buddy. Just because I didn’t grow up Catholic in Soviet Czechoslovakia does not mean that I cannot understand or appreciate what I’ve seen. In fact, I’m insulted by the insinuation that tourism, which is now funding renovation of the church, is evil in any way. Without my admission money, pal, your cultural icon would crumble to dust.

Probably, in Horyna’s opinion, those of you reading this review would not appreciate these spectacular photographs in a manner of which he would approve. I say, visit if you can. If you can’t, track this lovely book down.  Insulting text aside, it is very worth owning.

Amazon seems to be able to get you a copy here: Memento Mori

This review initially appeared in Morbid Curiosity #3.

Cemetery of the Week #38: the Sedlec Ossuary

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Cemetery of the Week #38: the Bone Chapel of Kutná Hora

My photo of the bone chalice in Kutna Hora.

Sedlec Ossuary (Kostnice)
Zamecká 127, Kutná Hora – Sedlec, 284 03 Czech Republic
Information Center telephone +420 326 551 049
English email: ic@sedlec.info
Founded: After 1400
Number of skeletons: up to 40,000
Open: Daily November – February from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. and April – September from 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. In October and March, it is open from 9 a.m. until 5. It’s closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Admission: Adult admission is 60 CZK. Students are 40 CZK. When I visited, they asked an additional 30 kroner for a photo pass. English-language guidebooks were for sale, as well.

The city of Kutná Hora lies only 70-odd kilometers outside Prague. It began as a small mining village. In the second half of the 13th century, villagers discovered rich veins of silver. The Czech king took over the mines and Kutná Hora (“mining mountain” in Czech) became the second most important town in Bohemia. The Prague groschen, a silver coin circulated throughout Europe, was minted here. By the 14th century, five or six tons of silver was extracted per year, making the Bohemian king the richest ruler in Central Europe. Eventually the silver veins tapped out and the mint closed in 1727. Since then, the town lapsed into being a peaceful backwater with some world-class medieval churches.

From the bus station, follow the signs toward the kostnice, Czech for ossuary. It’s an easy kilometer-long walk, much faster than waiting for the local bus.

The graveyard was sanctified in 1278, when Abbot Heidenreich brought a jar of dirt back from Golgotha, the hill outside Jerusalem on which Christ is said to have been crucified. With its handful of dirt, the little Cistercian graveyard became the most popular resting place in Central Europe. People literally came to Sedlec to die. Corpses got carted in from hundreds of miles away. Ten years later, 30,000 bodies — roughly the population of London at the time — had already been buried in the Sedlec graveyard. In 1318, the Black Death increased that number dramatically.

At the close of the 14th century, the Cistercians built a small Gothic church in the middle of their immense graveyard. The Church of All Saints appears to be about the size of a modest two-story house with a crypt below its chapel. Because the graveyard was filling so quickly, the Cistercians decided to dig up the oldest bodies and store their bones inside the church, leaving the ground outside available for new burials. This sort of exhumation occurred commonly in Medieval Europe, since the Church proclaimed that, to have any hope of Heaven, the dead had to be buried in holy ground. With Papal permission, the ground part could be easily discarded. An ossuary in a church was still holy, even if the bones remained visible for all to see.

In 1421, Protestant troops led by Jan Hus attacked Sedlec, martyred the monks, burned their cathedral nearby, and plundered the cemetery church. New monks arrived in 1454 to live in the monastic ruins, but the little church continued in a state near collapse until the Order saved the money to renovate in 1661. Another thorough restoration and reconstruction was completed in 1870, when Frantisek Rint — a woodcarver — rearranged the bones.

Above the staircase to the crypt, the bone decor begins. A daisy chain of skulls, crossed bones wired beneath them, traces the arch. In alcoves on either side of the foyer stand chalices assembled from bones. Long bones from the arms form the bases, topped with a layer of shoulder blades. Then the lacy architecture of tailbones supports a complex arrangement of smaller bones: flat disks that might be kneecaps, the slender bones of forearms. The bells of the cups are shaped from thighbones and topped with skulls. It’s breathtaking.

As cool as the inside of a refrigerator, the relatively dark chapel doesn’t smell of death, or rot, or even of mold. There isn’t a hint of corruption in the crypt. Despite the stained and crumbling plaster on the walls, the scent seems curiously neutral.

Each corner of the crypt holds a huge pyramid of bones. With 40,000 skeletons, each with an excess of 200 bones, one might expect to see many objects arranged from bones. But this is not a catacomb in the Parisian sense, nor a labyrinth of tunnels full of bones stretching away underground. The Sedlec ossuary fills a small room. You could twirl around in the center of it and see the bones of all 40,000 people, most of them stacked in these four huge pyramids.

Still, the pyramids are huge. Throughout the world, throughout history, pyramids have linked heaven and earth and symbolized earthly reality governed by heavenly order. Suspended above the pyramids hung tarnished silver crowns, signifying the promise of Heaven for those who’d died as Christians.

An eight-armed chandelier of bones blossoms in the center of the room, as fragile and delicate as lace. Jawbones strung end-to-end form loops like links of chain. The gentle slats of shoulder blades fan out to form platters, which support skulls. The intricate architecture of tailbones provides a repeating motif. It doesn’t feel sacrilegious. In fact, the overwhelming mood of the place is contemplative.

Below the chandelier rise four obelisks adorned with skulls and heavy silver sconces. Since ancient times, the obelisk has been considered the architectural materialization of a ray of light. It symbolizes the victory of light over darkness, the supremacy of God’s Heaven. Atop one of these obelisks hunkered a fat pink cherub with stubby gold wings. Its hyper-Romantic cuddliness disturbed me more than the bones did — it seemed so artificial and unnecessary, deeply out of place.

Beyond the obelisks opens an alcove with a crucifix. The pallid Christ drooping there seems drained of blood. His head lolls forward, devoid of will. His mouth hangs slack. It dawned on me that this Christ was dead. He was the only flesh-clad cadaver in this cellar full of anonymous bones. However, the dead Christ wasn’t there to be worshipped. I saw no chairs in which to sit and pray, no cushion on which to kneel.

The sense was not that the mystery had been performed, but that it was yet to come. All these Christians died with the certainty that they would wait until the Trump of Doom sounded before they being called into the presence of God and judged worthy to enter Heaven. The idea that Grandma waits for us in Heaven is a new one: prior to the 18th century, everyone went to the grave to rest until the end of time and the final judgment.

The chandelier hangs maybe seven feet overhead: low enough that it seems you could jump up and make it swing. Candleholders perch atop the skulls, but no trace of wax mars their perfect round blankness. The Cadogan City Guide to Prague says that, until the 1990s, the church used to light candles in the chandelier on November 2, All Souls’ Day, the Day of the Dead. A priest used to intone the requiem mass inside the charnel house. Apparently, church officials decided that the masses were “out of step with modern Catholicism” and discontinued them. Services may still sometimes be held in the chapel.

Useful links:

Official website of the Ossuary

Video of the Ossuary

An in-depth & well-documented trip to Kutna Hora

A visit to the Ossuary

Map to Kutna Hora

Books about ossuaries on Cemetery Travel:

My review of Memento Mori

My review of The Empire of Death

My review of Skulls and Skeletons

Other 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 #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

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