Picture it: you’re walking through the streets of Milan. You’re taking in all the beauty and charm this Italian city has to offer. Suddenly, you stumble upon a chapel, San Bernardino all Ossa. Something about this place draws you in. It seems like a simple enough building and somewhat unimpressive when compared to other churches, but you decide to enter anyway. Inside, you find the typical religious regalia, and, oh yeah, hundreds of human bones decorating the walls and ceilings.
Granted, the entire church isn’t covered in these macabre decorations, only one section of the building. However, I can imagine it would be quite a shock if you didn’t know what you were walking into.
The story goes that back in 1210, an ossuary was built to house the human remains from the local hospital after the cemeteries began filling up. Approximately 50 years later, a small chapel was built next door. Sometime later in the 17th-century, the building had to be rebuilt after the bell tower of Santo Stefano basilica collapsed onto the structure. It was around this time, the ancient bones were incorporated into the design.
The bones, mostly human skulls, are arranged to frame the space’s wall frescos, painted by artist Sebastiano Ricci. Not sure if this is the guy who ultimately decided human bones would really brighten up the room, but he seems a likely candidate. The rest of the bones are artfully displayed in the corners of the ceiling and around the trim work. I mean, if it wasn’t actual human bones, it could be called beautiful.
The people whose bones are used for this artwork include prisoners, hospital patients, hospital staff, nobles from Milan, and even church members. Maybe it was some kind of morbid honor for those latter two groups. I wouldn’t want my body up there, but to each their own I guess.
Of course, what kind of bone church would be complete without a ghost story? Supposedly, on All Souls Day, the spirit of a little girl rises from her resting place and leads the souls of the other residents in a dance. Not the creepiest tale, but I can’t help imagine that old Disney cartoon, The Skeleton Dance. (Click here if you haven’t seen it.)
Now, if you can’t imagine this being a popular tourist attraction, you would be dead wrong. (See what I did there.) This site is ranked 51 on TripAdvisor’s list of 900 things to do in Milan. The best part about it is the visit is completely free. So you can come and gawk anytime you like, except on Sundays it’s closed; I find that ironic, but maybe the bones need a day of rest as well.
- San Bernardino Alle Ossa [Atlas Obscura]
- The Ossuary Chapel of San Bernardino [Liturgical Arts Journal]
- The Ossuary [Breathing Europe]
- Chapel of Bones [Dark Tourism]
- Feature Picture [Flickr]