Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his many interests and his favorite topic.
As many people pointed out, devout members included, Roman Catholicism is a metal religion. Following a religious lifestyle is hardcore on its own. But as some members joked, it’s a religion where you could sport a human skull without getting sacked for occultism. And if one has fascinations with the macabre, the Church’s vast collection of Saintly relicts would catch your eyes. It ranged from small bone fragments to whole preserved remains of a human person. And as if keeping up with Catholicism’s metal nature is this religious order of the Franciscan Friars known as the Capuchins.
Now, I have friends with morbid tastes, and they are not afraid to show it. And they once openly declared to the world, much to my officemates horrors that being buried underground was not for them. If they go, they will go in an extravagant fashion. They fancied having their preserved remains displayed as arts, or their bones mounted as grotesque decorations. If that’s the case, then the crypt of the Capuchin monks will make them green with envy. If you have the chance to step in, the experience will leave you enlightened, or frightened. Because these monks use the bones of their dead members to decorate the crypt.
The Order of Friar Minor Capuchin
First, is the boring history lesson. You may skip this part and proceed below. But if you are wondering who the Capuchin Friars are, they are Franciscan monks that sprang from the Franciscan Friars Minor Observant (founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in the year 1209). The order’s founder, Matteo Bassi felt that they must return to the original and stricter rules of Saint Francis of Assisi, hence he established the separate Capuchin order in 1525. Upon hearing the order’s name, a variant of coffee will come in mind. But the name Capuchin came from the order’s choice of outfit. During its founding, church officials tried to suppress it, hence Friar Mateo and the rest went into hiding, with the Camaldolese Monks providing a refuge. In gratitude, they adopted the hood worn by the Order cappucio, hence the origin of their name. The popular beverage Cappuccino, which meant “little Capuchin” was named because it got the same shade of brown as the habits of the Capuchin monks. And if you haven’t noticed, these guys wear beards, which made them unique among other orders, as beards were the mark of hermitage.
With its stricter codes, the Capuchins was reputed as the poorest of the Orders, and as of 2018, it got more than 10000 members worldwide.
The Macabre Crypt
The Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (Our Lady of the Conceptions of the Capuchins) is a lovely church, designed by Antonio Casoni. The date of built was between 1626 to 1631. With its small nave and several chapels, it holds a collection of impressive altarpieces by various artists. But even more enchanting is what lies in its crypt.
After the completion of the church in 1631, the Capuchin monks arrived, and they brought with them their dead brothers, around 300 cartloads of deceased monks. It was by the order of the Cardinal Antionio Barberini (also a Capuchin) to bring their dead with them in their new home, so the friars are still united. Originally, the remains were stored in Santa Croce e San Bonaventura alla Pilotta, but when the monks reached their church, someone suddenly has an idea of using the bones of the dead friars for something out of the ordinary; to be arranged in a display. It was still a mystery who proposed such idea, but with Fr. Michael of Bergamo in charge, the bones like the skulls, the femurs, and the rest were stacked in a form of baroque art pieces. Some were even made into chandeliers and roof patterns staring down overhead. Soil from Jerusalem was also brought in.
And the result is both solemn, amazing, and morbid at the same time.
Rooms Inside the Crypts
In case you are wondering, it took thirty years for a deceased monk to decompose into skeletal remains. The burials were done without coffins. And when a monk died, the longest buried monk was exhumed to make a room for the newly deceased. The bones will then be added to the decorations of the crypt. Upon estimation, over 4000 human remains comprised the crypt decorations, from bones to mummified remains.
The crypt has five rooms, most of which with names as flashy as the display it holds. The Crypt of the Resurrection sounds meek enough, and it features the painting of Christ as he raises Lazarus. Framing the picture is an assortment of human bones, skulls included. Mummies of deceased friars flanked the image.
The crypt also got the Mass Chapel, the only boneless part of this macabre chamber. Like many chapels of its age, it boasts artistic altar pieces, and relics. The chapel also holds the tombs of the Papal Zouaves who died in the defense of the Papal states.
Then there is the Crypt of the Skulls, and aside from mummified capuchin brothers, you probably knew what it contains. The same could be said to the Crypt of the Pelvises, Leg Bones and Thigh Bones.
In the case of the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, one would indeed see mounted skeletons. A whole skeleton enclosed in an oval and carrying a scythe and scales made from human bones gazes above.
A trip to the Capuchin Crypt may not be for everyone, and certainly not for the weak of heart. But once you get passed the terrifying façade, only wonder and astonishments will remain. I mean, the Capuchin monks spent a lot of time meditating in the crypt full of bones, and nothing bad happened to them. As a friend said, the skeletal decorations might be macabre, but certainly not creepy. It is in fact a thing of beauty. But with all the awe and fear it inspires to the visitors, one might wonder. Why did they bothered to put together these bony decorations in the first place?
Now, when visiting the place, visitors must arrive in presentable clothes. No shorts or uncovered shoulders. Plus, the voices should be kept in a hush with photographs forbidden. One will also find a plaque here with the following inscriptions: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”
The solemnity of the place, and the inscriptions should give one a clue on the true purpose of the morbid decorations. The remains are a reminder of our mortality on earth. Death is ever looming, an inevitable part of life that once must accept. And the remains of the friars, arranged in an intricate manner is its silent reminder. In fact, in the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, the scythe wielding skeleton with a weighing scale is a personification of Death, holding the scale of good and evil deeds being weighed by God. The Crypt is a good example of Memento mori art, level-upped to infinity. With that said, we could say that the Capuchins has the best skeletal workforce.
- Who Are We? - Capuchin Franciscans
- Helyot's Hist. des ordres religieux (1792), vii. c. 24 and c. 27, gives an account of the Capuchins up to the end of the 17th century.
- Rendina, Claudio (1999). Enciclopedia di Roma. Newton Compton.
- Dylan (n.d.). Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts. Atlas Obscura.
- White, Ethan Doyle (n.d.) Rome's Capuchin Crypt: Coming Face to Face With the Dead. Archeology Travel.