Capuchin Crypt

May 17, 2011 – I’m often asked to name the oddest thing I’ve ever seen, and it’s a question that panics me every single time. It might as well be St. Peter asking me why I deserve to be let into heaven or a waiter asking me to choose a meal at a restaurant without an order-by-number system. In fact, when it comes to the oddity question, I rarely give an answer that I’m satisfied with five minutes later, especially since I usually resort to the first one that pops into my mind or the latest one I’ve visited. Well, I now have an answer that should be valid for good while, I think...the Capuchin Crypt of Rome, Italy.

The irony is, I don’t have any pictures of it. Photography isn’t allowed inside the crypt, and this time I followed the rules. It’s a temporary moral high ground on my part, though, as I break that rule regularly and randomly in other places. I just chickened out here because of the large number of people pressing around me in the small space of the crypt corridor and the sudden visions I had of these ancient skeletons attacking me in my sleep for desecrating theirs. I’ve linked to the relevant pictures that other people weren’t afraid to take throughout the article. Do enjoy my pictures of doors, though.

The Capuchin Crypt is a series of six small burial vaults arranged linearly along a single hallway and filled with human bones. Actually, more than filled, decorated with human bones. Actually, more than decorated, enthusiastically decorated with human bones. I get the feeling that whoever arranged these liked the assignment a lot.

The remains belong to ancient friars from the Capuchin order. Now, Catholic nomenclature confuses the heck out of me. I don’t know a monk from a friar or a monastery from an abbey, so me outlining the history of the Capuchins in this article would be silly. Plus, I’d just be copy-and-pasting from Wikipedia, anyway. Religious guys in robes is enough explanation for our purposes here, I think.

The one fun fact I do know about them is that the particular brown color of their robes gave us terms like capuchin monkey and cappuccino. Now, on to the bones that really secured their fame.

Underground vaults full of holy bone sculptures seem like an oddity you’d have to trek miles across wilderness before scaling towering cliffs and passing various tests of faith to witness. In reality, though, they’re Metro-accessible. The Capuchin Crypt is located right in the heart of Rome, beneath the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, a church on Via Veneto, just off Piazza Barberini. In fact, these grisly memento mori are across from all the fashionable restaurants and clubs made famous in the 1960s for birthing paparazzi culture and described by filmmaker Federico Fellini as La Dolce Vita.

Inside the crypt, you throw a euro in a basket, walk through a gift shop, descend a couple of stairs, and enter a short, narrow, dead-end hallway. As I mentioned, the small space was packed with people when we visited. Sometimes X-rays aren’t enough to satiate our curiosity about the girders and beams that hold up our bodies.

In the crypts are the bones of 4,000 Capuchin friars who died between the years 1500 and 1870. The crypt was built in 1631, so some of the friars arrived pre-boned, while others turned into them later. As members of the order died, they made space in the Jerusalem-imported soil of the crypt by exhuming the oldest burials and incorporating those bones into the macabre milieus around them. Again, in a seemingly ebullient fashion.

Most of the crypts share common features such as ceilings and walls adorned with intricate patterns of bones and full skeletons in hooded robes like something out of the Blind Dead series reclining or standing in bone-and-skull-delineated niches. However, each of the crypts is themed according to its main unique feature.

The first is the Crypt of the Resurrection, which is called such due to the centrally located painting of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead. Because in a room full of bones, skulls and hooded skeletons, the painting is the most stand-out feature. I actually had to Google just to remember the painting at all.

The second vault, the Mass Chapel, has no bones, just a regular old alter, and is actively used for [Texas Chainsaw] mass. However, in one wall is interred the heart of the grand-niece of Pope Sixtus V, so there is that.

The Crypt of the Skulls is self-explanatory, but not at all self-conceptual. You really have to see the thick stacks of skulls that line the chamber and hear the parents beside you explaining to their children, “This is what people did before Legos.”

Similarly go the Crypt of the Pelvises and the Crypt of the Leg and Thigh Bones. Artists usually have their favorite media, after all.

The last is the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. Here, in addition to all the usual-for-the-Capuchin-Crypt bone adornment, the small skeletons of two children hold a skull winged with shoulder blades while a third child skeleton is fastened to the ceiling of the vault and holds a bone scythe and set of scales. At some point, the nobility thought it cool to be buried here, which is how a celibate order got its hands on child skeletons. Oh, and I’m way intrigued by the idea of a child Grim Reaper.

The bones aren’t just limited to the vaults. They cover the walls and ceiling of the corridor in the same elaborate fashion. Inches above your head and dropping ossified dust into your hair dangle light fixtures made of bone. On the walls are finger-bone clocks, various decorative patterns of bones, and more skulls winged with shoulder blades.

As much as I love this kind of stuff, the overall effect was certainly a bit disconcerting. Part of me was even kind of trepidatious about breathing the crypt air, as if sharing lung space with these lungless dead was somehow strangely carcinogenic or unholy. I mean, I’m not a hypochondriac by trade, but I can’t vouch for my impressions and impulses while staring into the sockets of thousands of human skulls. I do take comfort, though, knowing that everybody from Mark Twain to Nathaniel Hawthorne to…uh… the Marquis de Sade has visited these crypts.

Man, there really is nothing like religion to satiate my tastes for the macabre.