When someone says the word “church,” an image of human skeletons probably isn’t the first mental picture that comes to mind. However, in the following macabre seeming churches, bones are not merely buried but can be found fully integrated into the design or out on show as tributes to the dead. Fascinating stories lie behind these unusual buildings, and you can read all about them as we present seven of the most amazing European churches adorned with human bones and skulls.
8. Chapel of Skulls – Czermna, Poland
Just looking at these pictures might send chills up your spine – not to mention skull and tibia bones. Located in the old Polish village of Czermna, The Chapel of Skulls was constructed in 1776 by resident priest Wacław Tomaszek who, along with J. Schmidt and J. Langer, placed the bones you can see inside. Around 3,000 skulls are set against the walls of the modestly sized Baroque church, with the remains of a further 21,000 of the deceased entombed down in the basement.
The chapel serves as a mass tomb for casualties of the Thirty Years’ War of 1618 to 1648 and the subsequent century’s Silesian Wars, in addition to those who perished as a result of starvation and the cholera epidemics of the time. Once again, the design work here has to be seen to be believed, with rows of skulls and crossed bones packing ceiling as well as wall space. The men who constructed this place of worship have a noteworthy honor: their skulls are to be found in the middle of the chapel and on its sacred altar.
7. Church of Santa María – Wamba, Spain
Known as the Monastery of Santa María, this medieval ossuary is located in Wamba in the Spanish province of Valladolid. Despite the ossuary’s presence in the Church of Santa María for hundreds of years, it was only in the 1950s that anthropologists sent the bones to the School of Medicine at the Complutense University of Madrid for research and analysis. It is said that from the 15th through 17th centuries, there was a lack of space in the surrounding graveyard, and so the tombs that dated back the furthest were uncovered, with their remains moved instead into the ossuary.
This special section in the largely Romanesque church contains in excess of 1,000 skulls of varying ages, and they are estimated to date from the 12th century, when the church was built, right up until the 1700s. Although we can’t say for sure, there doesn’t appear to be any specific arrangement or decoration involved in the bone collection, but from looking at the images, they don’t seem to need any order. They’re stacked so high and tight that they appear to have been glued together to form an arguably artistic façade.
6. St. Michael’s Chapel – Hallstatt, Austria
Within the grounds of the 12th-century Gothic St. Michael’s Chapel, situated in the Austrian village of Hallstatt, lies the somewhat macabre Beinhaus, or bone house. With the Hallstätter See lake to one side and mountains to the other, room for cemeteries was extremely limited in the area. Hence, as with the ossuary in Wamba, when burial plots were needed, the old bones of those already interred were dug up before being laid in their final resting place: the ossuary of the church.
The skulls themselves then became memorials to the dead – the female skulls adorned with a flower picked out by the family, and the male skulls similarly painted with ivy wreaths. The deceased’s name and death date were also inscribed along the crown. This information could make the Beinhaus a prime study site for future anthropologists and geneticists. Bones without inscription also lie below those that are decorated.
5. Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins – Rome, Italy
Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins can be found in Rome, Italy and is said to have been constructed between the years 1626 and 1631. Not long after it was completed, Pope Urban VIII’s brother, Antonio Barberini, arranged for thousands of the bones and skulls of Capuchin friars to be moved from the friary Via dei Lucchesi to the ossuary, which is situated beneath the church. After the remains were positioned all along the walls, friars started to inter the bones of their families here, and each night before bed they would come to the ossuary to pray and contemplate.
Today, the crypt itself is home to the bones of over 4,000 friars and is noteworthy for holding the remains of St. Felix of Cantalice and the Blessed Crispin of Viterbo. Various bones have been placed alongside one another to form fairly intricate designs, some of which adorn the ceiling. There are also skeletons in one piece, dressed in their religious garments. Inside one of the five chapels is a plaque emblazoned with the phrase, “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” Wise words, but still perhaps a bit morbid to have to think about for too long.
4. Church of St. Francis – Évora, Portugal
Among the most famous monuments in Évora, Portugal is the Capela dos Ossos – which translates as “Chapel of Bones” – located in the Gothic Church of St. Francis. In the 16th century, during the Catholic Reformation, a Franciscan monk built what is now this macabre tourist attraction, with the aim of encouraging others, like him, to examine the idea of life’s fleeting nature.
The space is said to contain the skeletal remains of around 5,000 monks, meticulously positioned on the chapel’s pillars and walls and encased by cement. Some of them are also covered in graffiti, while more authentic death motifs can be seen on the ceiling. As visitors walk into the entrance, an eerie warning greets them: translated from Portuguese, it reads, “We, the bones that are here, await yours.” And if that’s not enough to creep people out, there are two skeletons hanging from the walls, one of them that of a small child.
3. Church of San Bernardino alle Ossa – Milan, Italy
The Church of San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan, Italy is famous for a side chapel whose walls are bedecked with human skulls and bones. This Roman Catholic church was originally built in 1269, although by that time the grounds were already host to a hospital, a cemetery and a small chamber that held human bones. In 1679 the church was renovated by Giovanni Andrea Biffi, who also accented the ossuary with tibia and skulls.
Though fire laid waste to the original church in the early 18th century, a new and larger one was designed by Italian architect Carlo Giuseppe Merlo in the Mannerist style and was finished in 1776. The ossuary itself got a makeover at the hand of painter Sebastiano Ricci, who adorned the vaulted ceiling with a fresco based on the work Triumph of Souls and Flying Angels. The alcoves, walls and doors of the space have also been ornamented with bones to create various elaborate patterns following the Rococo style. It’s another – admittedly macabre – wonder of design.
2. Otranto Cathedral – Otranto, Italy
One of the major attractions of the south Italian city of Otranto is undoubtedly its cathedral. This church was established in 1068 and was consecrated 20 years later. Today, the cathedral contains some interesting pictures that have a Byzantine feel, while parts of the building itself have old Christian and Romanesque features. In the 1160s the city’s earliest Latin archbishop tasked a selection of artists with creating a sizable mosaic. This still visible work displays images from Bible stories as well as creatures from medieval fables.
Disaster struck in 1480 when the Ottomans besieged Otranto. Clerics and others took sanctuary in the cathedral but to no avail. The attacking soldiers forced their way in, brutally murdered everyone inside and ruined some of the artwork. Over eight hundred local people were also decapitated, as they refused to religiously convert to Islam – or so the story goes.
The following year, Alfonso V of Aragon took the city and cathedral back from the Ottomans. Consequently, the structure was redesigned so as to incorporate some of the mutilated remains of the so-called Martyrs of Otranto – the people who had died for their beliefs following the 1480 siege. To this day, the bones of the city’s residents can be seen all around a Gothic-style altar in the building.
1. Sedlec Ossuary – Kutná Hora, Czech Republic
The ossuary in the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec in the Czech Republic is sometimes dubbed The House of 40,000 Corpses. However, it may actually contain the bones of up to 70,000 individuals. The Sedlec Ossuary started out as a modest abbey cemetery. By the mid-14th century, though, the graveyard began to require significant expansion to accommodate the high number of casualties resulting from the Black Death epidemic and then, early in the 15th century, the Hussite War. The church itself was built on the cemetery grounds in approximately 1400, and it was both the lower chapel and upper section of this building that would serve as the ossuary.
A partially-blind monk undertook the labor of piling the bones and skulls after 1511, although they weren’t seen in their present form until 1870, when woodcarver František Rint was commissioned to organize the enormous stacks of bones into the morbid and Gothic-looking display that draws so many tourists today. The Sedlec Ossuary is arguably the most famous on this list, and it has been featured in at least one film, a documentary and a work of fiction. It also provided inspiration for a location in Rob Zombie’s movie House of 1000 Corpses.
The level of detail here is astonishing, with human remains ingeniously assembled to make up the very fixtures and décor of the place. Among the highlights are the Schwarzenberg insignia and a huge chandelier. Both are detailed works formed out of myriad bones, and the light fitting – said to feature every bone in the body – is festooned with skulls that hang from the vaulted ceiling.
One final design fact about this place is that a Czech architect named Jan Santini Aichel – famous for his melding of Baroque and Gothic styles – designed the chapel and front entrance between 1703 and 1710.