“You Shall Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)
MY VISIT TO THE CAPUCHIN CRYPT
My wife and I were in Italy last Halloween eve. We decided that the most appropriate way to commemorate Halloween was to sign up for a Roman “Crypt Tour” and visit some of the oldest known burial sites in the world. However, when we visited the Capuchin Crypt we realized we got a bit more than we bargained for.
The Capuchin Crypt is located beneath a church in the heart of Rome and contains what is believed to be the skeletal remains of approximately 4,000 Capuchin friars that died between 1528 and 1870. Over the centuries the bones of the deceased Capuchin monks were arranged within the Crypt so that the actual skeletons of the dead became artwork adorning several rooms and hallways within the Crypt. The centuries-old skeletal art arrangements are hauntingly beautiful. They also tell each of the visitors to take the time to listen about a profound message about life.
The Human Skeleton As Profound Art
The crypt rooms are arranged along a windowed corridor and have practical names like “The Crypt of Shin Bones and Thigh Bones,” “The Crypt of Skulls” and “The Crypt of Pelvises”. In one room, two severed, mummified arms cross one another to make the form of the Capuchin’s coat of arms. Several rooms contain robed and hooded figures, their darkened, desecrated skin still clinging to their skulls. And the decoration is not limited to the walls. Looking up, the arrangements of bones are set into the ceiling and include chilling chandeliers made out of human bones. On other walls, rosettes, crosses, coats of arms, crowns, and stars of bone are displayed. A decoration of a skeletal hourglass and a clock with no hands reminds us of the ephemeral nature of time itself. Further, dioramas of corpses can be seen, praying and resting on carefully mounded piles of bones.
Impressions From Others
The Marquis de Sade declared that the Capuchin Crypt was a “monument of funerary art” and the most striking thing he saw in his entire life.
Nathaniel Hawthorne visited and felt the oppressive weight of the display and wrote: “Not here can we feel ourselves immortal.”
When Mark Twain visited, he discovered that there was a seemingly personal relationship between the living Capuchin monks and the dead friars interned at the Crypt. In his 1869 book “Innocents Abroad”, Mark Twain wrote that one of the living monks thought of the dead monks as friends and colleagues despite the dead monks having lived centuries earlier. Pointing to a skull, one of the monks said to Mark Twain: “This was Brother Anselmo – dead three hundred years – a good man.” The monk touched another skull and stated: “This was Brother Alexander – dead two hundred and eighty years…” Then, according to Mark Twain, he pointed to another skull “This was Brother Carlo – dead about as long.” The Capuchin monk told Mark Twain the life stories of many of his long-dead colleagues and in great detail.
I am certain that the underlying message of the Capuchin Crypt is not one of death but one of life and the meaning of mortality. Within one of the Crypts is a message written by the now dead Capuchin monks to all of the living which states:
“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”
When I visited the Capuchin Crypt I felt that the centuries-old skeletal artwork personally reached out to me and told me to slow down and consider what I was doing with my life.
As I walked through the Crypt, and for weeks afterward, I wondered if am I making a difference? Am I doing all that I can to help others? Am I a good man?
While I don’t have answers to any of these questions, one thing is for sure: the Capuchins are correct – sooner than I hope, I will be as they are, and my life will only have meaning if I make it so.