A visit to the ossuary of the church San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan, Italy

It is the attempt that counts. A piece of art, on the verge of the macabre.  San Bernardino alle Ossa (Saint Bernhard of the Bones) is a church in Milan, not to far from the Cathedral of Milano, by itself an inconspicuous building. This church is best known for its ossuary (a skull and bones collection) in  a small side chapel.

In 1200s, the local cemetery ran out of space, I am not sure why, but one guess could be that famine struck northern Italy. A room was built next to the church to hold bones to tackle that problem. After all, you cant simply throw corpses in the river or burn them, can you? The result is a haunting, octagonal room, with hundreds of skulls stacked to the ceiling. As the church suffered from some catastrophes, and needed to be rebuild a couple of times, this work of art is in actuality much younger.

What struck me during my visit was the perfect symmetry with which the bones and skulls are stacked. The creators invested a lot of time to get it right and to make it esthetically halfway acceptable (if you go for that kind of thing). What I also wondered was how they separated the flesh from the bones. Were these people first buried, and the skeletons dug-up later? A human body may take about 1-2 years to be free of flesh, depending on its location, e.g. a body in a field will decompose much faster than a buried human (see my novel Two Journeys for more grisly details).

The skulls were all small, much smaller than the ones I saw in anatomy class. I suspect that most belonged to children, as only few seemed to be adult-size. An alternative explanation would be that these people were very small – perhaps it was indeed a famine? One or two skulls had impressive deformities; elongations at the back.

Click on any of the pictures below to enlarge.

Skull and Bones

San Bernardino alle Ossa – Stacked Skulls in the Ossuary

A scary sight: these stacked skulls and bones. Isn’t that Mario on the left?

 

Stack ’em ! Quite artistically done, yet still macabre. You’ve seen one ossuary, you’ve seen them all.

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One thought on “A visit to the ossuary of the church San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan, Italy

  1. Hi Clemens. I visited that church several years ago during a round trip in Southern Europe. I found it quite scary. The church next to it was very modest and not a real highlight.

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