The Story Behind a Frightening Chapel of Bones in Portugal
There is a Church of San Francisco found in the Portuguese city of Évora, 140 km (87 miles) from Lisbon. Inside this church, next to the cloister of the former Franciscan monastery, in the place where the monks' cells were once located, is the frightful “Capela dos Ossos” (Chapel of Bones.)
This peculiar chapel was built in the Gothic style throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Specifically, there were three monks who were in charge of the planning and building of the site between 1460 and 1510. It is said that the monks’ reasoning for the chapel was to bring their brothers to the contemplation of the ephemeral, volatile, and transitory nature of life.
Photograph of one of the columns of the Chapel of Bones, decorated with human bones and skulls. Church of San Francisco, Evora, Portugal. (Francisco Antunes / CC BY 2.0 )
At the time of the Chapel of Bones’ construction, the city’s two Franciscan cemeteries were overflowing and the remains had to be exhumed to create more space. That's when three of the monks thought to create a chapel with the bones and skulls serving as decoration for the walls, columns, arches, and domes. Moreover, the bone fragments, were decided upon to form part of the mortar. It is estimated that at least 5,000 cadavers were used in construction.
To access the Chapel of Bones, one must pass through a door with the following message written over the threshold: “ Nos ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos, ” roughly translated as “We bones, are here, waiting for yours.” A reference, no doubt, to the Franciscan concept of the futility of human existence.
Entrance to the chapel, with the message “We bones, are here, waiting for yours.” (Nuno André Sequeira / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The Chapel of Bones measures 18.7 meters (61.4 feet) long and 11 meters (36.1 feet) wide. Carefully arranged bones and skulls decorate its walls and columns. The roof is built of white brick and decorated with different motifs associated with death. The arches framing the small windows found within are also decorated with skulls, and the play of light and shadow gives the room an absolutely ghostly appearance.
Bone fragments and many skulls are found on the walls of the chapel. (Ken & Nyetta / CC BY 2.0 )
Another of the legends that exists about the origin of the bones, asserts that they came from a catastrophe that devastated the town of Monte Maior. The story goes that the disaster occurred during a thunderstorm in the area which, through a twist of fate, unleashed a thunderbolt on the great arsenal stored within the castle keep.
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Of the approximately 1,100 homes in the town, more than 800 were said to have been destroyed at that time. The thousands of recovered bodies were then buried in a mass grave. However, after 30 years the remains were supposedly dug up to build the chapel, as tribute to the victims.
Detail of human skulls that decorate the capitals and vaults of the chapel. (Nuno André Sequeira / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
In addition to the thousands of human bones that decorate the chapel, two human mummies are found hanging from one of the walls. One of the corpses corresponds to an adult man and the other is a young child. Both are hung for the visitor to witness, chained to the same wall.
Although their identities remain unknown, apparently they were found together and then hung there. One legend has it that they were father and son and the son mistreated his mother, in an act of which the father was accomplice. When the mother was dying she is thought to have cursed them both, saying “May the earth of your graves not be destroyed!”
Another legend claims that the man was an adulterer and the child his sinful offspring. In the end, the only thing known for certain about the two bodies is that they have been hanging in the Chapel of Bones since the seventeenth century.
Two human corpses, corresponding to an adult male and young child appear chained to a wall of the Chapel of Bones. (Georges Jansoone / CC BY-SA 2.5 )
It may be surprising, but the Chapel of Bones in Évora is not the only popular Portuguese ossuary. In fact, very close to this chapel stands the Capela de las Almas de Campo Maior (Chapel of Souls of Campo Maior): the second largest Portuguese chapel dedicated to eternal purgatory.