The Glories, And Bones, Of Rome

Susan Page
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Wednesday - April 29, 2009
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Ezekiel connected them bones, them dry bones

Ezekiel connected them bones, them dry bones

Ezekiel connected them bones, them dry bones

I hear the word of the Lord. Them Bones, traditional spiritual song based on Ezekiel 37

Human skeleton bones are not typically honored in America. In fact, skeletons scare the pants off most of us. Even cartoon skeletons are scary. So imagine being in a place where thousands of human bones of every type decorate the walls of rooms - as art, to pay homage.

We’re just back from a fantastic three-week trip (partly business) to Italy - my first - and I was completely besotted with the place. Thanks to our neighbors, Jan and Trip McKinney, experienced Italy travelers and lovers of Renaissance art, we had a must-see, must-do list for every stop from Venice to Florence, Tuscany to Rome, and my newly creaking knees prove I walked to every one.

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Our last stop was Rome. Since 7th-, 8th and 9th-grade Latin studies, I’d dreamed of once standing amidst the ruins of ancient Rome: the birthplace of the legendary Romulus and Remus, raised by a she-wolf, the House of the Vestal Virgins, the Roman Forum where Caesar walked and Brutus talked, the Coliseum (blood flowed like wine), and the notorious Circus Maximus (Christian executions made chariot race intermissions “fun”).

But I mostly wanted to visit the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the museums, galleries, many churches, the catacombs, the Mamertine prison where St. Peter and St. Paul were in chains together, and just to try to comprehend how Rome’s 3,400-year-old history intertwines with modern life. Not to mention, partake of good wine and Italy’s famous Gelato ice cream, common tourist aspirations.

But in pinpointing our hotel on the map, Trip realized we were just up the street from a particular site. “Should we have them go there first, Jan?” His grin aroused suspicion. Jan only laughed, “Sure, why not?”

We found the Church of the Immaculate circled on the map, and entered through a door into a large dark room known as The Crypt of the Capuchins, where between 1631 and 1870 Capuchin friars (think of brown robes with hoods) worshipped and buried their dead. The Crypt is decorated in funeral art. A nice flower arrangement? No.

It was immediately clear that we were going to have to have a chat with Trip when we got home.

The “art” before us was ... bones! And more and more of “them dry bones.” These arms and thighs, fingers and toes, ribs and pelvises were once friars and monks, some who fled to the church to escape the French Revolution. Here in the Crypt, the head bones are not “connected to the neck bone” like in the song. Walking down the hallway all round us, ceiling to floor, were disconnected bones intricately arranged by an unknown “artist” who evidently had only one medium at his disposal.


Five 20-by-20-foot vaulted-ceiling rooms are decorated with bones of every size and type, creating elaborate designs and scenes. One, the Mass Chapel, is bone-free and used for prayer and reflection. The other five are named: The Crypt of the Resurrection, Crypt of the Sculls (at least 200), the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones and the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. And my favorite, the Crypt of the Pelvises, described this way: “The side walls contain two Capuchins serenely reclining in an arched niche (robed full skeletons). The rear wall has three Capuchins leaning forward, the middle one rests beneath a large baldachino made of pelvises from which hangs a fringe of vertebrae. The central rosette is formed by seven shoulder-blades, with hangings made of vertebrae. On either side, the decoration ends with crosses bearing the instruments of Christ’s passion.”

Though the crypt is a very sincere and reverent - albeit macabre - place, a small sign warns darkly and humorously: “One day we were like you, someday you’ll be like us.”

(My will now excludes donating my bones to monk artists.)

Though at first shocked and slightly queezy at the sight of a vertebra and scapula chandelier, since “boning up on the history and selfless dedication and mission of the Capuchins, I’d actually revisit the spot if ever in Roma again. It wasn’t my favorite, but clearly the trip’s most memorable site.

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