Church of Death

By Professor of Deathology Paul Koudounaris

Photos by Paul Koudounaris

The attendant at Santa Maria della Concezione is not the only one in Italy who enjoys the company of the dead. Here, macabre religious sensibilities have given rise to a string of churches and chapels dedicated to, and populated by, the deceased. Visually spectacular and accessible to tourists, Santa Maria della Concezione is the most famous of these. Founded in 1631 and funded by Pope Urban VIII, the dirt-floored basement chapel became a repository for a large store of bones the brothers had brought with them from their previous monastery. Working at night in torchlight processions, the monks moved three hundred horse carts of bones across Rome and into the basement. This mass of remains was stacked along the walls – and added to in the 18th and 19th centuries – with the mummified bodies of their own brethren.

The monks filled several rooms with remains, with the bones used to create an architectural setting in which the mummies were placed. The individual rooms were named after whichever sort of bone formed the predominant decorative motif (“Crypt of the Skulls,” “Crypt of the Pelvises,” “Crypt of the Leg and Thigh Bones,” and the “Crypt of the Three Skeletons”). The mummies themselves were not well-preserved – in some cases the skin is completely gone, but in one instance it hardened so severely as to make the brother look like Leather Face from Texas Chainsaw Massacre – but this deterioration had the effect of adding even further presence to the displays. A chapel was placed at the entrance where Mass was performed twice daily, and the monks would visit the rooms during the evening to pray and contemplate their own mortality. Far from being considered horrific, the display was sanctified by the papal office, and Pius VI even offered a plenary indulgence for visitors. These visitors included the Marquis de Sade, who recorded a trip in his notebooks; he was impressed...

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