For many it is disturbing to call the bones of the dead, artwork. Its horrifying, macabre, disgusting and fascinating. Yet for a great number of the churches that display these artworks, they enjoy a high rate of tourism.
Clearly people love the macabre.
And with Halloween coming, people love the macabre and the dark side of life even more (or less, I know people who hate Halloween).
Never the less it around this time of year that bone churches make the rounds on the internet, often with a picture of some display and a blurb about it being human bones ... lots of exclamation marks.
While I had no idea of these types of churches or even their existence till later in life (when the internet came along) I have always wondered why did they do it and who are they – was it only one religion, one purpose.
I quickly learned that they all had their own unique reasons for being not only created but also maintained and even updated over the years.
While many were simply to make room for new dead, some were created as a form of memory of the times they lived, some were transplanted into cultural death practices, messages about living and loving life and even war propaganda.
North America does not have many, if any bone churches, but across the ocean in Europe they are quite popular and common. Even archaeologists are interested in them for what they can tell us of the time.
Below are six unique bone churches from varying countries across Europe with some of their history as it is known.
First stop ... Italy
Capuchin Catacombs and Crypts – Rome, Italy.
Italy is a country many see in a romantic and idyllic light, myself included, I was blown away when I seen how modern the country was and how well run – roads are in amazing conditions and trains run on time – North America said it couldn't be done. Cell phones and modern conveniences are everywhere.
But they have not forgotten their dead.
Italians not only respect the dead but the dying too, it's believed widely in Italy that without the past there would be no present and no future without knowledge of both (the genealogist in me loves this attitude).
It took until 1528 to get the approval of the then Pope to do and not be considered as abandoning their religious duties. This offshoot became known as Capuchin monks – they focused on helping the most needy and the poor, the ignored and the forgotten, the sick and the diseased.
In gratitude for the help of Camaldolese monks when they gave the Capuchin monks in the early days of their fight refuge, they adopted the hoods they wore and the beards, both characteristic of Capuchin monks and indeed how many recognize them today. They are also often called one of the more macabre branches of the Catholic Church.
There are two bone churches or as they are known Crypts, found in Rome and the Catacombs, found in Palermo, Sicily. It's macabre yes, but it's beautiful, haunting and has a message that never fails to hit home with people who see it.
They are the ultimate memento mori.
The Capuchin Catacombs of Palmiro
From the moment you walk in the door, all you see are empty shells of people once living in attire of either their time, their occupation or just a personal favourite outfit.
The residents, as they're referred to, number into the eight thousands. The first was a brother Silvestro of Gubbio in 1599, the last (or one of the last) was Rosalie, a two-year old little girl whose preservation is remarkable. This tradition started not as a project or a way to make a statement, but simply because in the sixteenth century, the cemetery was filling up.
Originally intended only for Capuchin friars, the last friar, Brother Riccardo, to enter the catacombs was in 1871. Local élite and well-to-do started requesting to be preserved (and dressed up) for all of time.
This is not done for free, it's maintained on a donation system that's required if you want your relative to uh, hang. Any who does not or stops paying the donation will find their ancestor sat on a shelf, till the donations continued. Likely why many willed money instead of relying on family to support their last wishes.
Eight thousand mummies need a lot of space, they line the walls, fill alcoves, sit on ledges, lay in glass coffins or just in slits in the walls. Some are paired up like husband and wife, mother and daughter or perhaps sisters.
Some of the residents include royalty (son of the King of Tunis), a Colonel in a – still – vibrantly coloured Bourbon military outfit, Bartolomeo Megna is a giant of a man yet known to have been quite pious, one skeleton is called Grandma, likely for the vibrant red shawl she wears with a grandmotherly type of dress.
The area's divided into halls of distinct categories including virgins, men, children, monks, priests, women and professionals, as this display of bodies is not only a way to remember the dead - families of the skeletons can come on certain days for prayer or visiting, but also a very much in your face history lesson.
Some of the skeletons are fully clothed in the garment of a monk – the hooded robes, sandals and rope belts. Some are standing with hands crossed in front and others are reclining in alcoves or on the floor. When you take into consideration that this crypt is underground and only the necessary lighting is added the combined allure of dead, underground and dim lighting make it a highly sought after tourist attraction.
Mark Twain visited before 1869 and wrote in his novel, Innocents Abroad, at least 5 pages of descriptions of this bone church but most interestingly was the observation:
“The reflection that he must someday be taken apart like an engine or a clock...and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes, did not distress this monk in the least. 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”
Each room has its own use and message. The six rooms are:
The Mass Chapel is the room where there are no bones at all. It is an area used to celebrate mass and is above the catacombs – just as in the days of Ole where Capuchin monks prayed right above the bones of their dead.
The last, Crypt of the Three Skeletons holds the message that none forget once they have been here. On each side of the room are two monks, fully clothed and laid in a recline position while various bones create elaborate designs around them. The centre skeleton is surrounded by the symbol of life and the coming of birth. It's left hand holds scales and its right, a scythe. A plaque stands in front of this morbid display and reads ... What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be. Not overly religious at all, just an honest if not blunt reminder where you and all humans will one day end up.
Two other churches on this list are said to have been inspired by this church – Skull Chapel in Poland and Sedlec Ossuary in Czech Republic.
Czermna, Poland: Kaplica Czaszek
Kaplica Czaszek or Skull Chapel as it is more popularly known is a small unassuming chapel filled with the bones of thousands of people – rich, poor, criminal, military. It's creator, Vaclav Tomasek, started to create it in 1776 to honour those who fell in the Silesian wars, plagues, cholera, hunger and Thirty Years' War, he cleaned and collected the skulls himself, then spent the next twenty-eight years embedding them
into the walls of the chapel until his death.
Many of the ossuaries on this list dismember the bodies and use the bones in creative ways, but this chapel's architecture deconstruct the human skeleton to be reconstructed on the walls, ceiling and around the altar in such a way they speak their own message from their repetitive patterns.
There are no floral or hearts, wreaths or crosses of the religious ways. Each bone speaks of a single deceased person, yet the way it is repeatedly laid out reminds us of just how connected we all are. In this sea of repetitiveness are some oddities set out on the altar in a prominent display – a syphilis damaged skull, bullet ridden skulls and one of a rumored giant - the misfits of society. It says that despite being misfits and set apart they too either are a part of the unity and oneness concept or they can be.
Upwards of three thousand bodies were used to create the bone chapel – ultimately the creators skull and those of his helper grave diggers as well, but it holds over twenty-one thousand bodies in its lower levels.
Morbid definitely, but intriguing and interesting none the less and to the living a reminder of mortality and salvation when facing death.
Sedlec, Czech Republic: The Sedlec Ossuary
In a suburb of Kutna Hora, Sedlec, in the Czech Republic lies a small chapel with an ossuary underneath the cemetery Church of All Saints; it holds the remains (bones) of upwards of seventy thousand people. This small chapel and ossuary attract nearly a quarter of a million tourists to its small town to view every year. Not to shabby for a small town in Czech Republic.
The cemetery itself became a popular burial grounds when an abbot of the Cistercian monastery returned from the Holy Land in 1278 with some dirt and sprinkled it over the cemetery, creating most sacred ground – prime burial for the religious and the rich of Central Europe.
This worked out well for a hundred years or so but with the arrival of the Hussite Wars and the Black Death, the small cemetery was soon overrun with bodies needing burial. It's prestige forgotten in the dire need of the time. Naturally the cemetery had to be enlarged and everyone was dug up, but not reburied.
The oldest of skeletons were removed and stacked up in the ossuary to make room for the freshly deceased. This went on till at least 1870, when Frantisek Rink was hired to put the bones into order – either the owner instructed him to create art or this was his idea of order, the making of bones into pieces of art.
The corners of the small chapel hold enormous bell-shaped mounts, a huge chandelier containing every bone of the human body hangs from its centre, garlands decorate the walls and the altar's flanked with piers and a coat of arms of the owner (at the time – Schwarzenberg) and near the entrance the signature of Rint (the 'artiste') can be found. The entire chapel is decorated in bones, there is little open wall space and it is tastefully done.
Not as tasteful as the one in Austria though.
Hallstatt, Austria: Hallstatt Beinhaus (Bone House)
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is when it started to fill up and the practice of removing older bodies became a tradition in which seen ten to fifteen year old burials exhumed and laid out to be bleached – even family took part in this process usually by stacking the bones in the ossuary next to the nearest known kin.
But unlike many other churches they choose to honour their dead in a completely different manner than just turning them into exquisite pieces of macabre art.
Perhaps family of people being removed were concerned about how to visit and remember them if they are dug up and sitting in a neat pile of bones. But the practice of painting the skulls with decorative motifs such as roses, garlands, ivy and oak wreaths (depending on sex) and including information such as birth and death dates started in the early eighteenth century. I think it is an ingenious way of honouring the dead.
I'm a genealogist, have been tracking long dead family for over fifteen years (some may argue that is the best family to have ... ) so perhaps it is my fascination with genealogy that has me truly appreciating how this one bone church commemorates their dead. Of the twelve hundred skulls over six hundred are painted and on display. Any skull on display from the seventeenth century and onwards, has a complete records behind it. They know who the skull belonged to, when born, died, parents and siblings and marriage information. A genealogists treasure trove.
This is my favourite bone church of them all.
But there are oh so many more, lets head to Serbia for something a little different.
Nis, Serbia: Skull Tower
Every bone church or building on this list finds its roots in religion and takes the bones of those who died and were interred there. Usually to make room for new bodies or for some to follow their traditions of death. The Skull Tower in Nis, Serbia is nothing like those and finds its roots in war and eerily, propaganda.
It was during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Turkish forces were notorious for building towers of the dead enemies as a way to intimidate and create terror. Skull Tower was built during May of 1809 for exactly that reason, only the Turkish did not kill all those Serbian rebels that were uprising against them, their own commander killed them and thousands of other Turkish fighters when he essentially committed mass suicide – though I am sure it could be argue
The Serbian rebels faced a massive sized Turkish army and fought well considering how out numbered they were, they would have fought better than the Serbian commanders communicated better between each other.
Instead one set of rebels, commanded by Sindelic, was overwhelmed by Turkish forces and rather than be captured, tortured and impaled he chose instead to fire his weapon into a powder magazine. The resulting blast obliterated those close by and killed thousands more in the vicinity.
The Turkish General did what he always does after battle, built a tower out of the rebels skulls showing his prowess and likely hoping to quell any future Serbian
Alexander Kinglake, a British traveller, stated that the Skull Tower captivated him the most in all Ottoman Serbia when he visited in 1848, even adding
“he was impressed by the simple grandeur of the architect's conception and that he was struck by the exquisite beauty of the fretwork."
It stood like that till 1878 when Serbians finally re-took Nis. They roofed over the tower and built a chapel with the tower its centre. In 1937 the chapel was fixed up and a bust of the Serbian commander who fired into the powder magazine was added.
Today only fifty-four of the skulls remain on site – the rest were laid to rest with dignified funerals. I am not sure what the criteria was to get a funeral and be laid to rest, but fifty-four skulls are all that is left today and one is the Serbian commanders skull – Sindelic, a local hero. It is due to the Serbian government efforts that the building even exists today.
A symbol of independence for ethnic Serbians.
Both history and a tome.