The Skull Cathedral of Otranto: Where the Bones of 800 Martyrs Adorn the Walls

The altar piece with skulls at Otranto CathedralPhoto:
Image: Laurent Massoptier

Before dismissing the image as yet another pretty picture of a medieval church, take a closer look. Yes, those are skulls! Instead of the usual altar pictures, there’s a wall of skulls, displayed prominently for the church congregation. Meet the martyrs of Otranto Cathedral in Italy’s Apulia region…

The year was 1480 and the fateful day July 28 when a fleet of 70 to 200 Ottoman ships reached the city of Otranto, then part of the Kingdom of Naples. It was the beginning of the Ottoman wars (1453-1683) in Europe and invader Mohammed II had conquered Constantinople just 28 years earlier. The garrison and the citizens took cover in the Castle of Otranto but as it had no cannons for defense, it was soon conquered and the garrison killed.

On August 12, 800 citizens were taken to the hill of Minerva, now called the Hill of the Martyrs, and beheaded because they refused to renounce their Catholic faith. Their remains were taken to the cathedral and the skulls preserved in the altar piece as a prominent reminder of these 800 martyrs.

The Madonna in front of the skullsPhoto:
Image: Andreas C.

The Ottoman Wars were motivated by territory gains and eradicating the Christian faith while spreading the Muslim one. Sound familiar? Just 200 hundred years earlier, the Christian Crusades (1095-1291) had led to an invasion of Northern Africa, with the crusaders’ goal to claim territory and eradicate the Muslim faith while spreading the Christian one. And the saga continues…

Otranto today, a tranquil Mediterranean village:
Otranto, Puglia, ItalyPhoto:
Image: Freddy Ballo

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