The most unusual chapel I’ve ever visited is this one in Milan. It’s located not far from the great Duomo — about a 10 minute walk — and probably would be interesting to most travelers. Some might argue it’s a morbid sight and I suppose that’s true, but many might regard being buried in a church a great honor. There are several other bone-filled churches in Europe, although I’ve never visited any before this one.
The main sanctuary of San Bernadino is nice but similar to thousands of other churches in Europe. Attractive but not very remarkable, in direct contrast to its unusual ossuary. To find San Bernardino’s famous chapel of bones you need to divert down a corridor to the right as soon as you enter the church, as it’s a smaller side room It is carefully decorated with human skulls, vertebrae and long bones on all walls, from the domed ceiling to the floor, with bones arranged on cornices, pillars and even doors. The bones are believed to have originated from a cemetery for hospital patients, the monks who cared for them, and executed prisoners.
I thought about why someone would go to such great lengths to create this chapel, and believe it’s to remind us that death is the great equalizer.
A hospital was built near here in 1145 (and is long since closed). Its cemetery was quickly filled and it was necessary to construct a chamber/hall to collect the bones of the deceased. In 1269 a church was built adjacent to this hall. The hall was restored in 1679 and it was around this time that the walls of the ossuary were decorated with human remains. The ossuary’s vaulted ceiling was frescoed in 1695 by Sebastiano Ricci.
The church was destroyed by a fire in 1712. A new bigger church was then built and dedicated to Saint Bernardino of Siena. The ossuary was repaired and rebuilt in 1750. It has an altar and a niche with the statue of Madonna Addolorata (Our Lady of Sorrows) kneeling before Jesus’ body (seen in the top photo).
In 1738 King John V of Portugal visited this chapel and was so impressed by it he had a similar one built at Évora, near Lisbon.
According to legend, on November 2nd, All Souls Day, a young girl whose remains are found near the altar of the ossuary, comes back to life and lures other skeletons into a dance. If this is true, it would be an interesting day to visit the chapel.
The ossuary is closed on Sundays. Admission is free but donations to the church are greatly appreciated (and politely encouraged by the church’s attendant).
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