Posted by By Limoge at 8 September, at 10 : 32 AM
Imagine you’re in a room filled with thousand year-old human bones from floor to ceiling, everywhere you turn. Sounds like something out of a Stephen King novel or a horrible nightmare, doesn’t it? Well, actually a place like this does exist (and I was there). Located in Rome, Italy, beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccin, lies the Crypt of the Capuchin Monks.
The crypt started back in 1631, when the Capuchin monks (who got their name from the hood attached to their cloaks, “capuce”) brought with them the bones of their deceased brethren after their original church was destroyed by the flooding of the Tiber river. They arranged these bones in their new crypt, first lining them up against the walls, but eventually getting much more elaborate.
Over the next 240 years, until 1870, the friars would become experts at, shall we say, “interior design.” Bones, such as skulls, leg bones, pelvises and such, were separated and employed to make elaborate columns, arches, and floral designs with great flourishes. Actually, if you squint your eyes, you might be able to forget that you’re looking at the deceased.
The crypt is divided into five rooms and contains the skeletal remains of 4,000 bodies believed to be Capuchin friars as well as poor Romans:
Crypt of the Resurrection
One would be hard-pressed to call the decoration in the Crypt of the Resurrection pretty, but it is certainly the least disturbing of the five rooms. On the back wall, different parts of the human skeleton create a frame for the picture of Jesus commanding Lazarus to come out alive from the tomb.
Crypt of the Skulls
One of the more shocking rooms is the Crypt of the Skulls. By counting the skulls in this vault, one can truly appreciate the sheer number of bodies actually housed here.
Most of the skulls are nailed to the back of the room, forming a wall with three connecting arches at the top. In front of this wall of skulls, stand the skeletons of three Capuchin friars, still vested in their habits.
Crypt of the Pelvises
At the rear of the vault, pelvis bones form the backdrop for three cloaked-skeletal Capuchins, Over the backdrop is a canopy of pelvises, from which hangs a fringe of vertebrae.
Pelvises and assorted small bones turn the ceiling into a macabre kaleidoscope of fleurs-de-lis and rosettes.
Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones
The greatest number of bones can be found in the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones.
The two side walls of this vault are formed from leg and thigh bones piled on top of each other, and then intermixed with skulls. Each side wall contains four niches large enough to occupy the skeleton of a Capuchin friar, standing and vested in his habit.
Crypt of the Three Skeletons
The center skeleton is enclosed in an oval, the symbol of life coming to birth. In its right hand it holds a scythe, symbol of death which cuts down everyone, like grass in a field, while its left hand holds the scales, symbolizing the good and evil deeds weighed by God when he judges the human soul.
A placard in five languages declares:
What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…
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