When in Rome, check out these bones.
On the swanky Via Veneto, hidden between classy hotels and overpriced restaurants, you can find the small church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. Deep within the church there is an ossuary, five small rooms stuffed with 4,000 skeletons. The collection began in 1631, when the Capuchin order moved here from their old monastery and brought 300 cartloads of dead friars with them. Each room of the crypt is packed with Jerusalem soil and marked with crosses. The first cartloads of corpses spent a few decades decaying underground before the small crypt began overcrowding. In order to provide burial space for newly dead friars and local destitute Romans, the oldest remains were exhumed and their bones were displayed on the walls around each cramped burial plot. So the cycle began: as each friar died, the eldest skeleton was removed from the soil and found itself spread across five rooms, its skull stacked in a geometric pile, its fingers joining beautiful chandeliers, its femurs forming ghoulish furniture.
The Capuchin friars are an ascetic order that splintered off of Franciscan friars in 1520. Like many religious groups, they have a strong belief in a life after death. Their unorthodox approach to displaying skeletal remains is supposedly not intended to be morbid but rather a visually stunning memento mori, a reminder of the necessity of death in order to reach the afterlife.
The rooms are practically named: the Crypt of the Resurrection is the first, where the bones frame a tableau of Jesus resurrecting Lazarus. Stacked tailbones, pelvises, and skulls form two dense columns crowned with an arch of skulls. This arched shape is reflected in the side walls, where two niches cradle complete mummified remains clothed in their traditional brown robes (cappuccinos are named for this color!). The ceiling, also echoing this arched form, is covered in vertebrae that is bizarrely reminiscent of fancy crown molding.
The Crypt of the Skulls features a tripartite arcade made of (you guessed it!) hundreds of skulls. This chamber features five desiccated corpses, again dressed and posed naturalistically. Unlike the last chamber, this crypt is filled wall to wall with bones and contains no paintings or other traditional art. The Crypt of the Pelvises is similarly arranged, but with pelvic bones stacked to the ceiling.
The Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones is a celebration of the Capuchin order and the most luxuriously decorated chamber thus far. Corpses stand in six niches on the side walls to observe the central spectacle: crossed mummified arms with a shieldshaped frame made out of vertebrae. The symbol of a sleeved arm crossed with a bare arm, both hands bearing the stigmata of the crucifixion, is characteristic of the Franciscan and Capuchin orders, symbolizing willingness for sacrifice and dedication to the poor. The vertebrae look almost like a decorative string of pearls framing the motif. If you can tear your eyes away from those arms (congratulations), the rest of the room is staring at you. Neat rows of skulls form a pointed arch above the Capuchin “logo,” all facing outwards.
Finally, there’s the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. It contains the expected mummified and robed friars amidst thousands of bones, including three small children’s skeletons sitting on a bench of pelvises. Hanging from the ceiling is the angel of death, a complete skeleton holding a scythe in one hand and a scale in the other. On a plaque under the three children, there’s an inscription translated into five languages:
“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”