Portugal’s Chapel of Bones ‘a shocking architectural concept’

February 20, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 1.17.18 PM“We bones in here wait for you to join us.” These words, that have been translated from the Latin phrase “nos ossos que aqui estamos delos vossos esperamos,” are carved into the front of one of the most eerie buildings in Portugal, beckoning visitors into the Capela dos Ossos, or Chapel of Bones, in Evora. While the words alone have managed to send a chill up the spine of many a tourist, the full skeletons hanging on the walls made entirely of human skulls serve as a macabre reminder of human mortality to all who choose to enter.

The chapel sits within the Church of St.Francis, part of the Royal Palace built between 1460 and 1510. Franciscan monks created the Chapel of Bones  in order to solve the problem of cemeteries taking up valuable space in Evora, according to www.sacred-destinations.com. The monks decided to communicate inevitable death by displaying the bones throughout the chapel.

 “It was a place where the monks came to pray and meditate, and the unusual decoration was meant to remind the monks that life is transitory and that, in the end, we all look the same,” said Ana Silva O’Reilly, a native of Lisbon, Portugal and an English travel blogger of Mrs.O Around the World.

The Atlas Obscura website mentions a golden skeleton that hangs at the very front of the chapel. It also says that the skulls are not only covering the walls, but are haunting visitors from the ceilings above.

“I was very impressed by the artistic placement of the bones; they were embedded into the walls in patterns,” British blogger Julie Fox said in an email interview after a visit to the chapel. “The skulls were used like piped icing to decorate the pillars.”

After a recent visit to the chapel, Glauco Adams, a Portuguese author, was amazed at what he saw.

“It’s very hard to describe the feeling of a visit to this place,” Adams said.

“I realized that no book, website or TV show could express all of the emotions within the chapel… My eyes were widely open; my breath lost its rhythm.”

Legend has it that the first two corpses to enter the Chapel were a father and son who mistreated the mother. Before the father beat her to death, she allegedly put a curse on them both so that they would soon follow her in death. Their graves could not be dug because the ground became solid as a rock, so the monks decided to make the chapel their eternal home. It has become a tradition for women to cut their braids and place them at the chapel entrance before being married in order to have a happy marriage.

“Remember that those are real bones; there was life in all of that,” Adams said. “The bones from a total of 5,000 monks fill the space. Who were they? How did they look? What did they think about life? The most disturbing question: what would they think of having their bones covering columns and walls of the chapel?”

There are many explanations of how the bones and skulls from 5,000 monks filled the chapel, though one has been proven to be true. Some like to believe that the bones come from victims of a Black Plague, while others think that they were killed in the Inquisition. The less exciting truth, as said before, is that the bones came from cemeteries that were being taken over by noblemen from Lisbon in the 1400s and used as hunting grounds… But where’s the fun in that? There’s nothing wrong with a little imagination.

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 1.18.24 PM“I’d read about the Chapel of Bones so the bones and skulls didn’t come as a surprise, but I wasn’t expecting to see dessicated corpses dangling in rags from the ceiling– especially not of a child!” Fox said. “I found them grimly fascinating and slightly disturbing.”

There are more Latin phrases written on the ceiling inside the chapel reading, “I leave, but I don’t die” and “The day that I die is better than the day that I was born.”

The chapel is also graced with the presence of the three monks that created it, though they are not on display with the rest; they are held in a white coffin by the altar.

Rick Steves mentioned in his piece, Peeling Back Évora’s Layers of History, that St. Francis might not be too happy with the way the chapel is decorated.

“The saint, who valued simplicity, would likely be horrified by the gilded excess,” Steves wrote.

The chapel may be a lot to take in at first, but the apprehension turns into allure with the sight of each skull and bone covered wall.

“It’s history,” Adams said “ It’s a shocking architectural concept. It’s a religious concept for some people. Not all the visitors can stand there for more than one or two minutes.”