Exploring Rome, I’ve visited various marvellous churches, from the absurdly ornate Chiese Nuove, to the fascinating San Clemente, with its three tiers of history. The most unusual church visit so far was, however, to Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.
This church – one of innumerable Santa Marias in the city – dates from the 1620s, and was built on the orders of Pope Urban VIII. Mr Urban’s bro was a member of the Capuchin order (you know, the people who invented the cappuccino. Not really. It’s named after their garb). This brother, Antonio Marcello Barberini – a member of one of Italy’s major aristocratic families – had the perfectly sane notion to exhume the bones of thousands of dead Capuchins and arrange their bones in the church’s crypt.
I know the memento mori – “remember your mortality” – is historically a perennial piece of artistic iconography, but this really does seem extreme. Apparently, they order simply got into the habit (ahem) of putting their own dead there, along with the bones of various other Romans – including children. Fresh corpses were buried without a coffin for 30 years, then exhumed to be used in the decorations. The soil itself was – get this – imported from Jerusalem. This grand
art project religious undertaking only ceased in the late 19th century.
The whole thing is deeply, deeply macabre, and totally at odds with the kind of largely wholesome New Testement Christianity I grew up with. Indeed, even I, an avid consumer of humanity’s more grim cultural output in the form of horror films and whatnot, felt somewhat queasy in the presence of all those bones artfully arranged into patterns and, in the final chapel, a diminutive, bony Grim Reaper, who hangs above you.
The lanterns of bones, mere millimetres above my head as I walked down the corridor, brought to mind Ed Gein’s human skin lampshades, while the skeletons of monks dressed in their habits resembled the antagonists of Amando de Ossorio’s “Blind Dead” cult series of zombie films.
The cheery message is “Quello che voi siete, noi eravamo; quello che noi siamo, voi sarete.” (“What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will be.”). Which is fair enough. But seriously, it’s the weirdest expression of Catholicism I’ve ever seen, topping even the demi-Mayan hybrid activities of San Juan Chamula in Mexico.
My wife Fran said the presence of so many bones reminded her of the bone-filled memorial stupa of the Choeung-Ek Killing Field in Cambodia. Most of us, in the course of a modern, Western lifetime, simply don’t come this close to so many human remains. I can understand the function and power of Choeung-Ek, but I’m baffled by the practises of Santa Maria della Concezione. At least catacomb ossuaries, generally, just stack up the bones, and don’t play with them so ardently. As momento mori go, it’s raw, over-to-top and frankly somewhat pagan.