5 of Europe’s Most Captivating Bone Churches
Europe is home to a number of crypts and chapels that have become the last resting place of human remains. Rather than being set away in coffins or urns, these skeletal remains are arranged and displayed as decorative motifs on walls and ceilings. A mix of macabre and artistic, bone churches (officially known as ossuaries) is a fascinating look into our own mortality.
Here are some of Europe’s most captivating bone churches.
1/ Capuchin Crypt, Rome (Italy)
The Capuchin Crypt (officially the Santa Maria della Concezione crypt) in Rome contains the remains of over 4000 bodies, most of them Capuchin friars who died between the 16th and the 19th centuries. The crypt was originally meant to serve as a traditional burial place, but the rooms quickly ran out of space so the remains were exhumed and the bones stacked in plain view. Today, mummified monks hang from the walls and mummified arms are arranged to form crosses and displays.
The crypt consists of six rooms, including a small chapel that actually contains no human bones. The other five rooms are dedicated to certain bones (Crypt of the Skulls, Crypt of the Pelvises) or focus on certain themes, such as the Crypt of the Resurrection.
While many ossuaries in Europe don’t necessarily have a religious undertone, this one certainly does – plaques and images constantly remind you to reflect on your own mortality and ask forgiveness for your sins.
2/ Hallstatt Beinhaus, Hallstatt (Austria)
Behind the Hallstatt Catholic Church and part of a small local cemetery, the Hallstatt Beinhaus (also known as Karner or Charnel House) is home to over 1000 carefully stacked skulls. While other ossuaries hold entire skeletons, this one is exclusively dedicated to skulls – many of which come from bodies dug up during the 1700s, when the local cemetery ran out of space for the newly departed.
After being cleaned and bleached in the sun, the skeletons were returned to their families – who eventually started to decorate the skulls with symbols and adding the person’s name and date of death as a way to keep them from being forgotten. Though ossuaries often hold anonymous bodies, the local Catholic Church keeps detailed records of the remains in the Hallstatt Beinhaus.
3/ Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora (Czech Republic)
The Sedlec Ossuary is one of the biggest bone churches in Europe and one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country. While the chapel itself is tiny, it contains the skeletons of over 40,000 people (some estimates argue a number of almost 70,000). Many of these belong to people who perished during the Black Plague, which killed one-third of the European population in the 14th century.
Here, the bones are arranged in special formations, garlands of skulls, a coat of arms, and even a chandelier containing at least one of every bone in the human body. While photography is strictly forbidden in many bone churches, you can take photos here.
4/ San Bernardino alle Ossa, Milan (Italy)
One of the oldest bone churches in Europe, this ossuary dates back to 1210 and it was constructed to house the bones of patients from a local hospital when the cemetery ran out of space. Full of beautiful Baroque-style decorations and 17th-century frescos from Sebastiano Ricci, this ossuary is also unique because many of the bones are built right into the wall rather than simply stacked behind glass or glued to flat surfaces. Although the chapel is very small, it makes up for it with very tall walls and vaulted ceilings, adding tons of vertical space on which to arrange displays.
5/ Catacombe dei Cappuccini, Palermo (Italy)
Another bone crypt originally dedicated to hold monk remains, this 16th-century ossuary eventually allowed powerful local luminaries to be entombed here. Many of the almost 10000 bodies stored in the web of subterranean passages are mummified, enclosed in sealed glass coffin-like structures, and preserved in their original clothing. Some are arranged in specific poses, such as the bodies of two children sitting together in a rocking chair or long rows of dressed skeletons standing against walls.
Perhaps one of the most notorious remains here is the body of two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo, who was embalmed and placed here in 1920. Lombardo's body is so well preserved that she still looks like a sleeping child 100 years after her death.
While ossuaries might seem eerie at first, the truth is that most bone churches are actually a sort of living homage to the departed – and a way to make sure the dead are never forgotten.
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