I think many of us have a morbid fascination with death. If we go back to the times of Ancient Egypt we can see through the extraordinary process of mummification that the notion of afterlife has been a question that’s plagued society; those who have died are gone but not forgotten. It’s believed by many that life continues after death in one form or another and the Capuchin Friars who lived in Rome were no exception.
The Capuchin Friars belong to a Roman Catholic religious order of brothers and priests, inspired by the ideals of St. Francis. Such ideals place emphasis on living as simply as possible whilst possessing a passion for peace, honesty and charity. This all seems normal enough, so that’s why the existence of Capuchin Crypt – aka the Bone Cemetery – appears even more surprising and bizarre. What you can find beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini is Capuchin Crypt, a small space of six chamber like chapels containing nearly 4000 bodies belonging to the Capuchin Friars.
Bone collecting, to put it simply, seems like an odd tradition but it was seen as an act of respect. Christianity shows immense devotion to the deceased, but there was another, more specific reason for preserving the dead in this way: the friars were convinced that among these bones were those of the founders of the Order, the first generation of Capuchins, and among them were many holy men.
As soon as I entered the Crypt I was greeted with something I didn’t expect to find: a certain type of prettiness. I know, right, how the hell can a place filled with skulls, kneecaps and collarbones look pretty? It’s a good question, but it was due to the arrangements of the bones – flower shapes were made up of ribs and vertebrae; and hips curved into a mosaic of hearts. Everything is intricately and delicately formed, it’s a vision of artistry that puts a new spin to the term ‘interior design’.
Of course, describing this place as ‘pretty’ probably doesn’t tie in with the general consensus, because on the other hand, it’s ghoulish, creepy and scary. Everything you expect it to be. For me, the ghoulish bits were the mummified bodies which were still coated in their robes to give them a life like quality. Unfortunately, taking photos were prohibited in the crypt, but I discreetly flouted this rule to take a few interior shots (sorry, some rules are there to be broken!). The place was spilt up into six small crypts, or chambers to get a greater sense of imagery, each possessing their own theme:
- Crypt of the Resurrection
- The Mass Chapel
- Crypt of Skulls
- The Crypt of Pelvises
- Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones
- Crypt of the Three Skeletons
Interestingly, the Crypt of the Three Skeletons is the only area which the human skeleton can be seen in its entirety, and these three skeletons happen to be those of very young children precariously resting on a shelf of hip bones. The impact of this says that death has no favourite age. As well as this suggestion, there are many other motifs made of skeletal remains, such as scales, and my favourite – a clock made from foot bones and fingers.
“What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”
General Information about Capuchin Crypt
Nearest Metro: Two minutes walk from Barberini
Admission fee: €7
Opening hours: Fri.–Wed. 9am–2pm and 3pm–6pm