I have always been fascinated with the strange, the unusual, and the slightly creepy. So tell me that there is a chapel in Evora, Portugal decorated with thousands of human skeletons, and I will be in there like a dirty shirt.
The chapel is aptly named Capela dos Ossos, or the Chapel of Bones. It’s actually an interior chapel located inside the Igreja de São Francisco (Church of St. Francis), a lovely church built in the late 1400s-early 1500s. The Chapel of Bones was built either in the 16th or 17th Century (both centuries are mentioned on signage within the chapel, so I’m not sure which is more accurate) by Franciscan Monks to relay the message of the transitory nature of life. This message comes across loud and clear from the banner written in Portuguese over the entrance to the chapel:
Nós Ossos Que Aqui Estamos Pelos Vossos Esperamos roughly translates to “We Bones That Are Here, Await Yours.” *Shudder* That was almost enough to make me turn tail and run out of there. But, as I said, this sort of thing intrigues me in a creepy kind of way. Besides, we’ve walked through the Catacombs below the streets of Paris, which was filled with way more skeletons than this chapel. So it couldn’t be that bad.
At 18.7 meters long and 11 meters wide, it’s not a very large chapel, and the three windows to the left don’t exactly make it feel light and spacious. I found it a little claustrophobic actually.
The chapel was built as an extension of the Chapter House of the convent of São Francisco. The tomb chest above belongs to the founders of the Convent.
This is the floor tomb of Bishop Jacinto Carlos de Silveira, who died in 1808 during the invasion of Evora by Napoleonic French troops.
The bones are held in place with cement, and there are bare patches where bones came off or were removed. The bones came from several church cemeteries, and it’s estimated there are approximately 5000 skeletons decorating the interior of the chapel.
The ceiling was painted in the 1800s with numerous motifs: more skulls and macabre symbology. Non Moriar Sed Vivam translates to “I Shall Not Die, But Live.” While the sentiment is slightly more uplifting, the imagery is quite the opposite.
And if that isn’t enough to darken your mood, there’s this tale:
There are two mummified bodies in the chapel which hang from ropes on the wall, one of a five-year old child. The story goes that an abused wife cursed her husband and son on her death bed, that when they died, the flesh would never completely fall from their bones. Unfortunately the mummies weren’t there during our visit, but there was a photo of them:
Overall the visit lasted maybe 20 minutes, but the sensation of being in such a gloomy, oppressive environment lasted well beyond that. It was absolutely worth visiting, but it weighs a bit heavy on you for a while after you leave, so it’s not for the squeamish or faint of heart. Which I guess is what the monks who created it were aiming for, to make people feel contemplative and thoughtful. Mission accomplished, I would say.