From their exteriors, these churches resemble many early, Gothic chapels. Their contents, however, may unsettle some unenlightened visitors. Ossuaries, or “bone churches,” are found in several European cities, and were constructed to relieve overcrowded catacombs and cemeteries. Garlands of strung skulls, bone chandeliers, and mummified monks kneeling in prayer are a few of the macabre furnishings they contain.
Capuchin Crypt, Rome
"What you are, we once were. What we are, you someday will be," reads an ominous plaque at the Capuchin Crypt in Rome. The plaque resides in a chamber among the ornately arranged bones, skulls, and skeletons believed to be the remains of 3,700 friars who died between 1528 and 1870.
The crypt, beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome, holds six chambers, aptly named for the bones they contain (The Crypt of Shin Bones and Thigh Bones) of the deceased friars the settling monks carried over with them.
Eventually, the corpses of indigent children and Romans were also added. Two crossed, mummified arms at the altar symbolize the Capuchin logo. After decomposing in the soil for 30 years, the corpses were exhumed and ritually arranged inside the crypt.
Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic
The definitive bone church, Sedlec Ossuary, is found beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints and houses the stacked-and-strung remains of over 40,000 deceased bodies.
Commissioned to instrument the macabre “art” inside the crypt was local woodcarver František Rint, who designed a monumental chandelier that contains at least one of each bone from the human body.
Rint is also credited for the Schwarzenberg coat of arms, which depicts a raven picking at a severed head. His signature remains on the wall today, rendered in the ubiquitous medium: bone.