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The church of San Bernardino alle Ossa, San Bernardino by the Bones, is cheek to jowl with the larger church of Santo Stefano in a central area of Milan that was once in the middle of just about nowhere. And its name is a tip-off to its decor, in case you were wondering.
There are bones in San Bernardino, lots of them, maybe even tons of them, arranged with Rococo care and Baroque grace all around the chapel that you’ll find down a hall to your right as you enter the church. The chapel ceiling was frescoed by Sebastiano Ricci in 1695, the altarpiece was painted by Gerolamo Cattaneo.
But then come the walls, entirely covered in skulls and bones. Who did all those bones belong to? Proto-Christian martyrs? Friars? Beheaded criminals? People who died of the plague? How did they get here, all over the walls of a lovely chapel?
It seems that the answer to these questions is more a question of practicality than of mystery: the chapel is by definition an ossuary, or “place to deposit the bones of the dead.” In 1652 the local hospital was suppressed and its cemetery was dug up. Rather than re-bury all the bones, someone had the idea of using them as a decorative motif for the new chapel that was being built. The reduced space taken up by the ossuary made it possible to respectfully store the remains of many, many people. And so San Bernardino alle Ossa, a kind of vertical, open air cemetery.
Dead flowers and exsiccated remains decorate the altar at San Bernardino alle Ossa
Used as a decorative element, this mass of former humanity takes on a new charm. But San Bernardino alle Ossa was built with more than just decoration in mind. The bones are asking you to stop and think. Where are you going in such a hurry? Do you ever think about the consequences of what you’re so busy doing? Do you ever think about your death? The bones are reminding you to live a good life so the day you die will be better than the day you were born.
Suggested reading: Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
Muriel Spark, Memento Mori