San Bernardino alle Ossa – church with an ossuary chapel

 

There are a few of the famous churches and cathedrals in Milan. First and foremost, the magnificent Duomo, then Santa Maria delle Grazie where it housed the most famous painting “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci, Basilica of Sant’ Ambrogio etc. But seldom do people mention the church San Bernardino alle ossa in Milan.

This church is situated in via Carlo Giuseppe Merlo, 4, and is about 10 mins walk from Duomo.

 

The history dated back to 1145 when a hospital was built near the Santo Stefano Maggiore Church. The graveyard nearby, filling with bodies from the new hospital, soon proved to be insufficient. In 1210, an ossuary was built to collect the bones from the hospital and in 1269, another little church was built near the ossuary.  The church was restored for the first time in 1679 by Giovanni Andrea Biffi. The current church is the work of Carlo Giuseppe Merlo, one of the architects of who built Duomo. The work was begun in 1712 and completed in 1750.

The entrance of the ossuary chapel is inside the Church of San Bernardino. The interior of the church has an octagonal plan, with Baroque-style decorations. There are paintings from the 16th-18th centuries and the ossuary chapel is located at the end of a short corridor to the the right of the church’s entrance. The vault of the chapel is decorated with the fresco “Triumph of Souls and Flying Angels” from Sebastiano Ricci in 1695.

antique wooden confessional box

Once you enter the chapel, you will see numerous bones and skulls bundled up covering the entire walls of the room. These are also used as ornaments of doors and pillars. All the human bones were probably belonged to the dead people of the former hospital in the area, victims of the plague or corpses transferred from the cemeteries of the 1600’s. The skulls were those who were sentenced to death.

Beautiful fresco in the vault

mosaic floor

 

I did not know whether it was the huge contrast of bright sunlight and dark interior ( I went in at around 2 pm on a bright sunny summer afternoon) or the strikingly disturbing scene of four walls of bones, I felt dizzy and a sudden surge of nausea. ( maybe too much negative energy inside? :P) I quickly took a few pictures and went back outside.

I seriously do not see the beauty and artistic value in using human skulls and bones to decorate a chapel nor the moral lesson behind it. If it is ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ and that we all begin and end as dust, will this display of the dead people’s bones be an intrusion to their final peace?

 

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