Europe’s pretty famous for its bone chapels. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all, right? Wrong. The Capela dos Ossos in Évora, Portugal is head and shoulders above the rest. A LOT of heads and A LOT of shoulders. Some femurs too. A few tibias. Maybe some uln…Hey! Whaddya mean this has stopped being humerus? Pfft. Come on then. Let’s explore.
What’s so breathtaking about the Capela dos Ossos is that at first glance, it just looks like a really nice Portuguese chapel. Gorgeous painted vaulted ceilings, traditional azulejo tiles, stone columns and gilding. There’s order and calm and symmetry. Those textured walls are pretty, too.
And then you snap out of your I’ve-Seen-So-Many-Portuguese-Chapels-On-This-Trip-Can’t-We-Just-Have-A-Sit-Down-And-A-Glass-Of-Port haze and realise the walls are completely made of bones and skulls. Yep, those central pillars, too. Thousands upon thousands of eye sockets are staring out at you. And there’s some dead guy hanging by a chain over there.
Let’s pause to have a look at him. If the walls and pillars weren’t quite enough to remind you of the transience of life and your own impermanence, the dessicated corpses of a man and child might do it. Legend has it that these two unidentified bodies belong to an adulterous husband and his small son, cursed by a jealous wife. It does seem a tad unlikely, but the mystery of the hanging skeletons may never be solved, so it’s as good a theory as any.
So where did all these bones come from? The Capela dos Ossos was built in the 16th Century, a practical solution to the overcrowding of Évora’s burial grounds. A handful of Franciscan monks seized the opportunity to put the bones dug up from as many as 42 cemeteries in the area to good use; instead of hiding the 5,000 skeletons away, they set them in concrete and made decorative displays as memento mori.
The monks wanted visitors to the church to reflect on their own mortality – it sure is hard not to contemplate death when it’s all around you, after all. Thanks to them, this chapel will creep you out and amaze you in equal parts.