A structure with interiors covered completely in human bones – sounds like the stuff that scary houses are made of, right? But believe it or not, it is actually a place of worship. Capela dos Ossos, or the Chapel of Bones, is located next to the Church of St. Francis in the medieval Portuguese town of Evora. The 16th century chapel is a large room that has been adorned with the bones of over 5,000 monks.
The decision to use human bones as building material for a church is certainly an unusual one, but there’s a story to justify it. It seems that in the 16th century, Evora had about 43 cemeteries that took up way too much land. When the decision was made to destroy some of these cemeteries, the corpses of 5,000 monks were exhumed in an effort to save their souls from condemnation. It was decided that the remains of these monks would be relocated to the Capela dos Ossos. However, the existing monks soon realized that it might be a better idea to put these bones on display, rather than behind closed doors. These monks were concerned about the societal values of the wealthy town of Evora. So they set about creating a place for meditation, a place where the undeniable reminder of death would help people transcend the material world.
The welcoming message at the doors of the chapel is rather blunt – “Nos ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos.” Which means – “We bones that are here, for your bones we wait.” A pretty blatant reminder that we’re all going to die one day. I suppose it’s meant to get people into perspective before they enter the chapel and begin to pray. But praying would indeed be difficult inside a place like this – the walls are decorated with thousands and thousands of skulls, and bones are arranged in decorative patterns. For an added effect, the corpses of a woman and a child hang from a wall. No one knows who they were or why there are even in the chapel, but rumor has it that a powerful man had once cursed them. When they were refused burial in local cemeteries, the corpses received shelter in the chapel. I do hope the bodies didn’t actually decompose in there; they would have stunk up the place. That couldn’t be too good for meditation, now could it?
The world’s most popular bone-decorated attraction is the Sedlec Ossuary, in the Czech Republic. Unlike regular holy place that use paintings as decorations, this one uses between 40,000 and 70,000 human bones.