"The ceiling design in the Capuchin monastery [in Rome]. Father Time is depicted as a skeleton ringed in vertebrae bones. (Photo by Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images). Circa 1950." Image Source: Avax News.
A select group of people in human societies have always stood watch over the frontiers between life and death. In the past two millennia, these people were mainly monks. As the photos of their catacombs and cemeteries illustrate, they had no psychic skepticism because they believed in the spiritual afterlife. But what is more important is that this was an engagement with death that was simultaneously credulous and tangible. It was a medieval sensibility, a direct engagement with both sides of death, spiritual and human. One look at these photos tells of the profound aftershocks in European culture of the Black Death, which lasted for centuries. The crypts, built in the terrible aftermath, tell of times when the bridge between here and there was much more real than it is now. Ossuaries, especially, are locations that draw a straight line not only between life and death, but also between religion and science, between the middle ages and the present.
The Capuchin Monastery Crypt, Rome
In the annals of haunted places on Earth, the Paris Catacombs, where a breathtaking 6 million people are interred, are probably in the first paragraph of Chapter One! They look medieval, but they are modern and revolutionary. They are a product of modern urbanization. Construction began in 1786. The Paris Catacombs are the world's ultimate ossuary, or bone house.
The Ossuary of the Capuchin Crypt, with the remains of 4,000 friars. Image Source: Tessier via Wiki.
But the skeletal remains in Italian Capuchin order monasteries are pretty arresting. In Rome, the Capuchin crypt is located just under the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione, a church commissioned by Pope Urban VIII in 1626. It contains the remains of 4,000 monks, collected until 1870. Wiki: "The Catholic order insists that the display is not meant to be macabre, but a silent reminder of the swift passage of life on Earth. [It is d]escribed by Frommer's as 'one of the most horrifying images in all of Christendom.'" The crypt was visited by such figures as the Marquis de Sade (in 1775), Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain. Twain wrote of the monk who was his guide through the crypt: "The reflection that he must someday be taken apart like an engine or a clock...and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes, did not distress this monk in the least. I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present."
Rome's Capuchin skeletons and bones are placed in such a way as to depict Biblical scenes. There are five chambers to the ossuary. The main one, the Crypt of the Resurrection, features a picture of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, created by various parts of the human skeleton; also, the Crypt of the Skulls; the Crypt of the Pelves; the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones; and finally, the "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." (See the image at the top of this post).
"A monk dusts down the remains of his dead comrades in the tombs and the catacombs of a Rome monastery. (Photo by Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images). Circa 1950." Image Source: Avax News.
"Skeletal remains in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images). Circa 1940." Image Source: Avax News.
In Palermo, the Cimitero dei Cappuccini has catacombs as well, where local dignitaries considered it an honour to be interred with deceased monks. Some 8,000 people are interred there. The monks posed bodies in chairs and hallways so that family members could visit them and hold their hands.
The remains of a little girl, shown below, who died in 1920, were preserved so that she still appears as she did when she died. She was mummified through a rediscovered process: "The embalming procedure, performed by Professor Alfredo Salafia, consisted of formalin to kill bacteria, alcohol to dry the body, glycerin to keep her from overdrying, salicylic acid to kill fungi, and the most important ingredient, zinc salts (zinc sulfate and zinc chloride) to give the body rigidity. The formula is 1 part glycerin, 1 part formalin saturated with both zinc sulfate and chloride, and 1 part of an alcohol solution saturated with salicylic acid." This little girl was one of the last people interred in the crypt before it stopped accepting the dead. It was the grisly end of an era.
The remains of Rosalia Lombardo, (1918-1920), Capuchin catacomb, Palermo; photographed in 1995. Image Source: Wiki.
Sedlec Ossuary Chandelier, in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic. Image (28 October 2004) © BrokenSphere via Wiki.
Coat of arms of Schwarzenberg family at Kostnice (Sedlec Ossuary) in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic. Image (25 September 2004) © word_virus via Wiki.
The actual coat of arms. Image Source: Český Krumlov official municipal site.
The use of ossuaries is most famously associated with the Roman Catholic faith; but they also appear in other religions: Eastern Orthodoxy, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.
Ossuary displaying the skulls of Orthodox monks, Megalo Meteoro. Meteora, Greece. Image Source: Maggie Rowe.
Caption for the above photo: The ossuary at Megalo Meteoro. Meteora, Greece. The Metéora (Greek: Μετέωρα, "suspended rocks", "suspended in the air" or "in the heavens above" - etymologically similar "Meteorite") is one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece, second only to Mount Athos. The six monasteries are built on natural sandstone rock pillars, at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios river and Pindus Mountains, in central Greece.
Cemetery in Guanajuato on the summit of Cerro del Trozado, Mexico. Circa 1955. Image Source: Avax News.
Caption for the above photo: Dried and shrivelled corpses, some fully clothed and some in coffins, line the wall of a vault of the Pantheon (Cemetery) on the summit of Cerro del Trozado in Mexico. They were removed from the crypts because of non-payment of cemetery fees. The hot dry air stopped the bodies from rotting. Most of them were placed here between the turn of the century and WW I. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images).
The climate in parts of Mexico is ideal for natural mummification. A Mummy Museum has been established in Guanajuato to display the results.
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