One of the most shocking things on our trip thus far was a visit to the crypt under the church Santa Maria della Concerzione dei Cappunccini in Rome. I’ve seen human bones before, but nothing like this. Sue and Martin had strongly suggested that we go see this atypical attraction, so we made a point of tracking it down, but didn’t know what to expect. We were amazed.
The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (O.F.M.Capuchin) is an order of friars in the Roman Catholic Church, an offshoot of the Franciscan monks. The Order arose in the early 16th Century when a Franciscan friar was inspired to return to the lifestyle of their founder, St. Francis of Assisi. Originally persecuted by their superiors, they were granted refuge by another order of monks and adopted their hooded habit (capuccio) from which their name Capuchin derives.
Due to their visual similarity, both the Capuchin monkey (hooded appearance) and cappuccino coffee (the shade of brown of the friar’s habits) were named after this order of friars.
The Capuchin friar’s life is one of extreme austerity, simplicity, and poverty, following the ideals of St. Francis. Their chief work is to preach among the poor, impressing them with their devotion, and the poverty and austerity of their lifestyles. Neither the friars nor their monasteries should possess anything, not should any provisions be laid down for future. Everything should be obtained by begging, and the friars were not even allowed to touch money. Today there are still over 10,000 Capuchin friars and a female branch of the Order called the Capuchin Poor Clares, whose life is so austere that they are also known as The Suffering Sisters.
On our last day in Rome we visited the Capuchin Crypt. When Capuchin friars arrived at the church in 1631, they brought 300 cartloads of their deceased brethren with them. Their bones were arranged in 5 small crypts under the church, not as complete skeletons or as simple groupings of similar bones, but in decorative patterns! The friars also brought sufficient soil all the way from Jerusalem for the floors of the crypts to bury their newly dead. When someone died, they exhumed the bones of the one who had been buried the longest (typically 30 years) to make room for the new body. The exhumed bones were added to the decoration, which includes amazing artistic creations (including light fixtures) made from the human bones of approximately 4000 people!
The Catholic church explains that the display is not meant to be macabre, but to remind people of how short life is, a powerful message regardless of one’s religious leanings. On the ceiling of the Crypt of the Three Skeletons there is a skeleton holding a scythe, a reminder that death will cut us all down, and a set of scales, implying that we will all be judged.
What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be. – plaque in the Capuchin Crypt
Note – Photos are prohibited in the crypt so the images above were scrounged from Google image search.