The Chapel of the Bones: Remembering Death

With one glance at a photo, you would imagine that the space was created by a morbid tyrant aristocrat in centuries past; a vaulted space, lined ceiling to floor in skeletons that are used as adornment. A man and an infant hang precariously together on a wall the reason for their place of shame or honour a mystery.

It is not however a space created by a tyrant aristocrat of yesteryear, but pious monks reflecting the transitory nature of life.

Connected to the Royal Church of St. Francis, it is called Capela dos Ossos(Chapel of the Bones) in Evora, Alentejo, Portugal .   The Church of St. Francis was built between 1460 and 1510, a testament to medieval grandeur and the Portuguese voyages of discovery. Evidently a pious location for monks, there were already 42 cemeteries in the sixteenth century. It was an attempt to clear some of these holy brothers from their final resting space and make some room for the living that forged this chapel.  At least five thousand skeletons adorn this sacred space.

Momento Mori, Latin for remember you will die, is used to explain a form of artistic creation in which the intent of the artist is to remind viewers of their own mortality.   When we think about our own death, we are more likely to reflect on the afterlife.  The Chapel of the bones is an excellent example of this form of art. The arch which leads to the chapel reads “Our bones that are here wait for yours.” As for the desiccated bodies of the adult male and the child, little is known.  One suggestion is that it was an adulterous man and his child, but to place them in such a holy space seems ridiculous. More likely they are a symbol of Christian purity or sacrifice; possibly an example of the life cycle that the Franciscan monks were shunning.

As for the monks who actually built the space, they are resting peacefully in a coffin in the chapel abstaining from joining the art around them.

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