We have been to some eerie places, no question about it. Capela dos Ossos, the Chapel of Bones in Evora, Portugal tops our freakish list. Entering the macabre world of this ossuary, we crossed into the Twilight Zone. And as we did, we thought we had found something unique. Not so.
In fact, it’s not even the only chapel of bones in Portugal.
Whether they are called an ossuary, a bone church, a chapel of bones, or something else, buildings lined with human bones and skulls are out there. Many were created to solve overcrowding at the cemetery without disrespecting the dead. In fact, some religions consider the display of one’s bones to be an honour. Others look at it and see a gruesome display of inhumanity.
Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), Evora, Portugal
The Chapel of Bones Evora was built by three Franciscan monks in the 16th century from the skulls and bones of an estimated 5,000 humans previously buried in the cemetery. The remains of the monks are in a small white tomb to the right of the main altar.
The monk's dual goals were to solve an overcrowded cemetery problem and to provide the townspeople with a place to contemplate the inevitable, memento mori being a common spirituality theme of the era.
Continuing that theme and framing the entrance, the invitation inscribed over the door reads (translated): “We bones that are here, for your bones we wait.”
The ossuary is located behind the Church of St Francis. When we asked for directions, the tourism board made clear that this is not the only interesting thing to see in Evora. And while they are correct, the ossuary is one not to miss.
Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora, Czech Republic
Sedlec Ossuary, near Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic, was at one time an ordinary ossuary housing exhumed remains from the local cemetery but has since become famous for its odd and artistic arrangement of human bones. The small chapel is decorated with 40,000- 70,000 human skeletons, delicately fashioned into everything from a huge chandelier to the coat of arms of an aristocratic family.
Each year over 200,000 people come to see this chapel draped in garlands of skulls, making it one of the most visited tourist attractions in the Czech Republic.
Paris Catacombs, Paris, France
The Catacombs of Paris is one of the most interesting sites of underground Paris and also one of the most visited attractions in the City of Lights. Originally, the Catacombs of Paris were underground quarries, which were used since the medieval times to extract stone for building the new constructions in Paris. By the end of the XVIII century, these abandoned quarries were reused as underground ossuaries when the city council decided to transfer all the cemeteries located within the city's boundaries. The 'Paris Municipal Ossuary' took later the name of Paris Catacombs in reference to the Roman catacombs, which had fascinated the public since their discovery.
Despite its distant location in regards to other sites like Notre Dame or the Louvre, the Catacombs of Paris is a popular attraction, which tends to see long lines. We recommend buying skip the line tickets not to waste your time waiting outside.
Hallstatt Charnel House, Hallstatt, Austria
Hundreds of artistically painted skulls attract visitors to this chapel of bones in the otherwise idyllic town of Hallstatt in Austria. Primarily a 19th-century activity, skull painting is an art. It originated as a means of identifying remains that were moved from their overcrowded gravesites from the 1700s.
Over half of the 1,200 skulls stacked at Haalstatt have been painted. Many with names, professions, and dates of death. The most recently added bones were from a woman who passed in 1983, requesting this as her resting place.
The Charnel house is located behind the catholic church and near the 12th-century St. Michaels Chapel. It is only one kilometre from the popular Salzwelten (salt mines).
Basilica and Convent of San Francisco, Lima, Peru
Painted in vibrant yellow and paved with beautiful uneven tiles, the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco is one of the most recognizable landmarks of Lima’s old town.
The main porch of the basilica is a perfect example of Spanish Baroque-style architecture and when I visited there, the entire hall was echoing with the chorus sung by the practising local choir. Its neighbouring monastery consists of a convent, a library, and a catacomb, which are only accessible by signing up a guided tour. It was my first time entering a catacomb – and the sight has definitely left an impression.
The catacomb housed more than 25,000 bodies who were laid to rest in the convent and the skulls and bones withstood hundreds of years of earthquakes and other disasters. It served as a burial place in Lima up until the year of 1808, when the city cemetery started their service.
Capela dos Ossos, Faro, Portugal
The Capela dos Ossos in Faro isn’t as well known as the more famous chapel in Évora, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: the best way to experience one of these bone chapels is when it’s just you in there.
Made from the skulls and bones of more than 1,000 different people, visiting the Capela dos Ossos is both incredibly eerie and thought-provoking at the same time. And, that’s exactly what the monks who designed it were going for as well. Above the entrance, there’s a sign that says “pára aqui a considerar que a este estado hás-de chegar” (stop here and consider that you will reach this state too). If you feel like you need a reminder of your mortality, or just want something unusual to do in Faro, add this unique church to your Algarve itinerary.
Skull Chapel, Czermna, Poland
Bones and skulls of over 3,000 creatively decorate the walls and ceiling of the Kaplica Czaszek at St. Batholomew’s Church in Czermna, Poland. Most were moved from mass graves of those who perished in wars from in the 17th and 18th centuries. Others died from epidemics of cholera, plague, or syphilis.
A trap door reveals the the remains of an additional 21,000 in the crypt below the church.
Construction began in 1776. It took only 18 years for two people to construct the chapel, clean the bones, and position them artistically. Interestingly, the skulls of the two builders are found in the altar at the centre of the building. The Latin inscription at the altar translates to “Arise from the Dead”
San Bernardino alle Ossa, Milan, Italy
If you enter the church of San Bernardino alle Ossa and turn right rather than proceeding into the main part of the church, you’ll quickly stumble upon an unexpected and fascinating sight: a small chapel filled entirely with bones.
This ossuary dates back to the 13th-century and is decorated with frescoes painted in the 17th.
Sit inside the chapel, and you’ll see bones climbing the walls all around you, with skulls featuring prominently in some sections.
The remains are believed to mostly be from patients who died at the Brolo Hospital that once operated nearby, as well as from local graveyards. However, stories do suggest that the skulls located above the door may have come from a different source--perhaps from executed prisoners.
San Bernardino alle Ossa is located less than a 10-minute walk from Milan’s famous Duomo and free to enter, making it an easy addition onto any Milan Itinerary.
Brno Ossuary, Brno, Czech Republic
Brno Ossuary is the second-largest ossuary in Europe, It contains bones from over 50,000 people that primarily died from the Black Death. It is also known as the Ossuary underneath the church of St. James thanks to its location under the church.
There are several pathways where you can see the bones piled up along the walls and ground. You can even see some full specimens of bones from children on display. The ones who didn't die from the plague died from battle wounds.
What makes it even more creepy is the fact that some skulls have their teeth intact. The entrance fee is quite modest at 70 CZK, which is about 3 USD.
Ossuary Chapel of the Cathedral of Otranto in Otranto, Puglia, Italy
Visiting the Ossuary Chapel of the Cathedral of Otranto is one of the most important things to do on a visit to the Adriatic Coast of Puglia, Italy. The Roman Catholic Cathedral, dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, houses the relics of the Martyrs of Otranto, 800 citizens who refused to renounce their Christian faith and convert to Islam following the siege of Otranto in 1480 by Ottoman forces.
The martyrs, who were beheaded on the Hill of Minerva, were beatified in 1771 and canonized on May 12, 2013. Their relics are kept behind glass on display within the Ossuary Chapel of the Cathedral of Otranto, which is open to the public.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre – The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
One of the most sobering sites to visit as a ‘dark tourism’ destination is the ‘Killing Fields’ of the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Here a glass stupa (tower) neatly lined with the remains of 9,000 victims acts as a reminder of the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge during 1975-1979.
In total, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians were massacred by the regime. Around 20,000 were killed on the Choeung Ek site which has 129 mass burial pits and where bones and clothing still re-surface after heavy rains. The tragic story is told through an audio tour that guides visitors around the grounds and ends at the stupa. The stupa holds 10 levels of human bones, a memorial of the atrocities committed only 40 years ago.
Tips for visiting an Ossuary
To date, the only church made of bones we have personally visited is the Capela dos Ossos Évora in Portugal. While these tips apply specifically to that ossuary, they are also general.
- Be respectful.
- Remember that while it is fascinating to adults, an ossuary visit might be terrifying to children. This especially applies to Evora. Like most others, Evora’s bone chapel features decorative arrangements. However, Evora adds two full skeletons hanging from chains, one being that of a child.
- Capela dos Ossos is open in the morning and then again in the late afternoon. Hours are limited and can be found here.
- There is a small entrance fee and an additional fee to take photos.
More on visiting Evora
- We drove to Evora as part of an extended road trip through Spain and Portugal.
- Expanding our eerie experience, we stayed at a former Renaissance palace called Hotel Solar de Monfalim. While not advertised as haunted, we had some bizarre experiences.
- Without a car, Evora is accessible by bus or Eurail.
- If you are staying in Lisbon, an all-day tour is a great way to see Evora. As old town Évora is a UNESCO site, tour operators have many options, so be sure to read the details. We like the choices of this 8-hour sightseeing tour in Evora and Azeitão as it visits the key sites of Evora including the bone church, and includes a wine tasting in nearby Azeitão.
Nothing quite like skulls and bones to remind us that anything can happen. We don’t leave New Zealand without travel insurance. It’s a personal choice that has paid off well for us as we have ended up in hospitals on four continents and had a wallet stolen in the USA, resulting in a missed flight. We always start with World Nomads.
⇒ Click here to get a quote from World Nomads.
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