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Famous Ossuaries From Around The World – Take The Tour!

beinhaus-in-hallstatt-austria

Ossuaries are containers of bones, ranging from buildings to boxes. They have a very long history, with some common threads throughout time. In all cases, the bodies were temporarily buried or stored to allow the natural process of decay to take place.

Once some time had passed, the bones were removed, cleaned and moved to the ossuary. Some ossuaries aren’t terribly interesting; they’re shelves with bones. Others are significantly more creative.

Here now are some of the most famous ossuaries in the world. Take the tour with us and prepare to look death straight in the eye socket!


The Crypt Of Santa Maria della Concezione

The crypt of the church of Santa Maria della Concezione contains the bones and remains of 4,000 Capuchin friars. The chapel preserves some bodies fully intact, dressed in the Capuchin habit. Most of the bones have been disassembled, and used for artistic decoration on the walls, doors and pillars of the church.

the-capuccin-crypt

A sign, printed in three languages, reads, What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” Delightful. The bones of the friars were collected and assembled in Santa Maria della Concezione between 1500 and 1870.

The Capuchin friars came to the crypt to pray regularly.

Here is a short video to give you an idea of the morbid splendours of this ossuary. Enjoy!


Chiesa de San Bernadino alle Ossa Church in Milan, Italy

Chiesa de San Bernadino alle Ossa is a church in Milan, Italy. While the majority of the church is rather ordinary, the side chapel is quite unusual. In 1210, a room or chapel was built to hold bones, as the adjoining cemetery had become full.

In 1269, a church was attached to the ossuary, and in 1679, the ossuary was redesigned.

san-bernardino-alle-ossa

The church, but not the ossuary, burned in 1712, and a larger church was rebuilt as the ossuary was already becoming quite famous. The walls, doors and pillars of the ossuary are covered in human bones, predominantly from the patients of the local hospital and the monks who cared for them. The vault is decorated with frescoes by Sebastiano Ricci, painted at the end of the 17th century.

Here is a video showing the inside of the church. Have fun!


The Chapel of Bones in Evora in Portugal

The Chapel of Bones in Evora, Portugal offers another perspective on the ossuary. By the 16th century, cemetery space was becoming a problem, so the monks chose to move the bones from the cemeteries to an interior chapel.

The ossuary was inspired by San Bernadino alle Ossa. Like San Bernadino alle Ossa, the chapel has walls, doors and pillars covered in bones. It also contains several key relics associated with martyrs, and several desiccated corpses, hung on the wall next to the crucifix.

The Chapel of Bones in Evora in Portugal

An inscription at the entrance reads, “We bones are waiting for you”.

Here is a short video taking you inside the ossuary. Cheers!


Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic

In the Czech Republic, the Sedlec Ossuary is a small chapel, located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints. While work on this ossuary began in the early 16th century, the finished chapel dates to 1870 and is the work of a woodcarver, Frantisek Rint.

sedlec-ossuary

The chapel contains a massive central chandelier, containing at least one of every bone in the human body. Draped garlands made of bones decorate the space, and the walls, coat of arms, and other decorations are made of bones.

Get better acquainted with Sedlec Ossuary in this short video. Maybe if you grease their palms a little bit, your skull could even be in there some day…


Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne, Germany

The Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne, Germany is a Romanesque-era church with a Gothic style choir; it is particularly remarkable for one of its small chapels. The Golden Chamber or Goldene Kammer features the bones, it is said, of St.

Ursula and her 11,000 virgins, found in 1106. The original legend stated that Ursula died with 11 virgins, but that number grew over time.

basilica-of-st-ursula-original-27296

The chapel contains significantly more than 11 skeletons, but fewer than 11,000. The bones are not all women, but include men, children, and even mastiff dogs. The bones are arranged in letters, swirls and designs on the walls.

Unlike the other ossuaries, this one is designed as a reliquary, and bears the costly and lavish decoration you would expect in gold and silver throughout.

Just watch this video and you’ll be wondering, “Who was this talented interior decorator who went to all this trouble?”


Beinhaus in Hallstatt, Austria

Not every ossuary is decorative. Some are simply practical, like the catacombs in Paris or the Beinhaus in Hallstatt, Austria. These spaces hold bones, because storage was needed. While they are open to the public, the bones do not serve a significant decorative function.

In the catacombs, cleaned bones are neatly arranged. In the Beinhaus, they are painted and decorated, but sit on simple wooden shelves.

 

beinhaus-in-hallstatt-austriaConclusion

Ossuaries served a dual function; they were practical, providing a space to store bones when sanctified space for cemeteries was in short supply. When integrated into a religious space, they also provided a sort of memento mori for the viewer, a reminder of the fleeting nature of life, and of the realities of mortality.

Have a great day!

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Every Day Is Halloween – The Symbolic Meaning Of Skulls In Art

michiel-sweerts-self-portrait-with-skull%22-detail-c-1661-oil-on-canvas

If you’ve ever walked through a museum, through the galleries of European paintings, you might have noticed something a little bit unusual. There’s a preponderance of skulls in these paintings. Portraits have skulls, still lives have skulls, and even religious artwork has skulls at every turn.

Unless you are a mortician or a grave robber, you might be wondering what is going on with all of these skulls?

holbein-danse-macabre

Every Day Is Halloween

It’s not that skulls are a particularly delightful subject to paint, or that it was considered aesthetically appealing to add a skull to your still life of flowers; in fact, the skulls had a clear and distinct meaning in the art of the early modern world.

Let’s simplify that meaning in modern terms, “Here today, gone tomorrow.” The skulls (and skeletons and bones) were a reminder that earthly life was short. Particularly in the past, life was not only short, but often quite unpredictable.

Early death was common, and wealth did not protect anyone from that.

michiel-sweerts-self-portrait-with-skull%22-detail-c-1661-oil-on-canvas

Danse Macabre

Art historians use several different terms to describe these reminders of mortality; the most common are memento mori, which translates to “Remember that you have to die,” and vanitas, meaning emptiness. Sometimes works are much more obvious about their references, with skeletons playing a key role in the work.

These works fall into the category of the Danse Macabre. Occasionally, skulls and bones play a different role in art. They can symbolize a particularly saint, or a saint’s relics, but most of the images you’ll see of skulls in art are there to remind you that you have to die.

Danse Macabre even has its own soundtrack, so to speak, which emerged later (1875), thanks to French composer Camille Saint-Saëns.

The Danse Macabre is the oldest of these representations in European art, and dates to the late 14th century, not long after the Black Death devastated much of the known world. The first versions of the Danse Macabre were didactic, or teaching, poems in the form of dialogues between a living person and death.

Murals portraying the Danse Macabre were common in churches throughout the 15th century, but varied. Most showed a round dance led by the figure of death, or alternating dancing live people and skeletons.

We must admit, it does look like a lot of fun!

danse-macabre-in-art

Eventually, the imagery of death moved from the church walls to private art, particularly as the Protestant Reformation in the late 15th century changed the art world. Well-known artist Hans Holbein the Younger created a woodcut series of prints for the Danse Macabre (shown at the top of the article), but also produced one of the more interesting skull images of the period.

Holbein’s 1533 painting, the Ambassadors, shows two men, leaning against shelves of worldly goods. On the floor in the foreground of the painting, there is an image of a distorted skull, clearly visible only when viewed from a certain position to the right of the painting.

If you want to learn more about The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein The Younger, watch the below video and enjoy this detailed lecture on the topic.

Skulls are a common addition to portraits in the period, often arranged alongside other decorative items on a desk, table or shelf, or held in a simpler, seated portrait. With The Ambassadors by Holbein, as elsewhere, the skulls remind the viewer of the temporary nature of life.

In addition, they bring a sobriety to the portrait, a message about the sitter’s virtue and interest in the afterlife. The sitter may engage with the skull, or ignore it entirely. Oh, and by the way, if you’re looking at this piece and wondering where the skull is, Hans Holbein The Younger was kind enough to put it in the painting using anamorphic perspective.

What Are Vanitas Paintings?

Vanitas paintings are still life images that include aspects of death, often a skull. Still life painting was largely decorative, and most popular in the Netherlands. In Protestant countries, religious art was entirely unacceptable.

Still life painting avoided any potential question of religious content, but still strove to be serious, and to portray a message about the purchaser. Opting for Vanitas images added a severity and seriousness to what were often frivolous paintings.

In some cases, the skulls are replaced by other images of death or decay, like rotting food, insects, or decaying flowers.

vanitas-painting

So, Why All The Skulls?

So, to answer that initial question, “Why all the skulls?”, we have to recognize that while skulls may share the same basic meaning, the reason for their portrayals may differ. In churches, the reason was clear; death is coming, be prepared.

In portraits or still life works, it is less clear. These images don’t serve to inform or teach. They may preserve an image, serve as a sort of publicity in an era before widespread printing, or decorate.

Here in the above work, the skulls say something about the patron, the sitter or the purchaser. They recognize that this world is temporary, even when the object itself, an oil painting, is a luxury item.

They say that the patron or sitter knows that life is short, and is thinking, already and appropriately for the time, about the afterlife.

There’s one more depiction, if you can call it that, of skulls we did not discuss—the ossuary. Come back soon for the creepiest architecture and construction of them all!