Monday, January 17, 2011

Breathing smoke? I'm no dragon!

On our first trip to Italy in 2009, we had heard about a crypt in Rome that was decorated with the bones of thousands of dead Cappuchin monks. It sounded intriguing, and warranted a visit, and I’m so glad we eventually found this crypt – the Cappuchin Crypt in Rome was one of my husbands favorite places in the city. So when I stumbled across information of a bone church in Milan, it was quick to make our list of things to see locally.

La Chiesa San Bernardino alle Ossa, or the Church of St. Bernardino of the Bones, is just a couple minutes walk from the Milan Duomo and found in a humble looking church. We wandered around the small piazza and the outskirts of the church, 'discussing maturely' where to find the entrance to the crypt. After pushing on several locked heavy wooden doors, we entered the church, and went right toward a small chapel to see a narrow set of swinging doors on the left side with a sign pointing to the “Ossario.” Mass was is progress in the main church so we tried to usher children into the ossario as quickly and stealth-like as possible. No awards for our covertness; my direction of "We need to be quiet", was quickly followed by screaming of "What'd you say mummy, mummy, what did you say, mummy, mummy, what did you say to me....mummy!" Needless to say we will not be sneaking into any movies anytime soon.

I pushed open the swinging doors and we walked, (some of us ran), down a dimly lit hallway. The atmosphere seemed eerie, I guess to be expected when you are going to look at old body parts. I had warned my daughter that we were going to see bone art, in preparation not to scare her, and to avoid answering any kiddy questions I was unprepared for, (such as "Mummy, why are the bones on the outside of their body?", or "Can we get some bones to do art?", for goodness sake I'm even dreading the day of, "Why don't planes have to flap their wings to fly?") Another small doorway is found at the end of the hall and it opened into a chilly one-room chapel, its walls almost entirely lined with cages holding thousands and thousands of bones. I wonder if this was the bone art my daughter was expecting?

There was a lady sitting alone in the chapel when we entered and a couple towards the back sitting quietly filming on their phone. I wanted to take pictures, and I had not seen any signs indicating I could not, but I also did not want to be disrespectful of someone who was actually praying /reflecting / sleeping in the chapel. (The Cappuchin Monks Church in Rome strongly enforced no photos, and people were even escorted out when seen doing so.) Not wanting to be thrown from the church by an Altar Boy Bouncer, I waited until it was just the couple remaining before I reached for my camera. I am not one to betray, but that man filmed first, I could always blame his influence?

The chapel itself is small, but the room itself is quite tall. This ossuary had almost every wall reaching from floor to ceiling with stacks of skulls as well as arm and leg bones. The walls between the cases (which were all behind metal grating) had some bits of decoration that included bones, but for the most part it seemed like a storage for missing bones rather than the display of bone artwork that I had expected. St Bernardino was definitely worth the visit, unfortunately I found the bone display a little plain compared to what I had seen previously in Rome.

The fresco on the rounded ceiling of the chapel was particularly striking and unlike any I had seen before– there were pieces of fresco which were layered in the corners, giving it more of a 3D effect. Wanted to lay down a rug and spend sometime watching, just as you would the clouds on a picnic, (but I could imagine this would of been seen as highly inappropriate).

As we entered the chilly chapel, my children stripped off their jackets and started an inappropriate game of catch and chase, my husband looked apologetically at the others in our company and tried to explore the room, and I was concerned with something else all together. Why did it look like I was breathing smoke, I'm not a dragon? It felt twice as cold inside than outside, and it was about 4 degrees outside. Although the room did have an eerie feel about it, (there was feeling of a crowded room, with very few people), it was beautiful, and to me, and it felt more like a place of art than a place for worship.

The ossuary at San Bernardino alle Ossa came into being because a hospital and cemetery were built next door (at an adjacent church, the Basilica of St. Stephen) in 1145. When the cemetery became full, a room was built to hold the bones in 1210 (the present-day ossuary chapel). Then in 1269 they built the rest of the church. The multi-layered fresco on the ceiling of the chapel was painted in 1695 by Sebastiano Ricci.

IF Important Fact - Expect songs to be stuck in your head for the next few hours...

"The Foot Bone was Connected To The Leg Bone,
the Leg Bone was Connected To The Knee Bone,

the Knee Bone was Connected To The Thigh Bone,

the Thigh Bone was Connected To The Back Bone,

the Back Bone was Connected To The Neck Bone,

the Neck Bone was Connected To The Head Bone,
oh, Hear The Word Of The Creepy Crypt!"

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