Question: Where in the world can you stand amidst the remains of 5,000 departed souls, who wait patiently for you to join them—and insist you’ll be better off?
Answer: Capela dos Ossos, Évora, Portugal
“We, the bones that are here, await yours.”
No, it’s not a quote from the latest blockbuster horror film—though it would certainly make a good one. It’s the warning you’ll find at the entrance of the Capela dos Ossos—Chapel of Bones—in Évora, Portugal. And while it may sound morbid, it represents an ancient Christian discipline invoked to keep one’s humility and character in check: memento mori—“Remember that you have to die.”
The chapel’s namesake is obvious: its walls are completely covered by skulls and bones, arranged in hauntingly beautiful decorative patterns. In the late 15th century, Franciscan monks dreamed up this meditation on the transience of life. About 5,000 skeletons are laid to rest here, exhumed from their original burial plots in nearby cemeteries. This actually served a very practical purpose—and one that wasn’t uncommon at the time: cemeteries took up a great deal of land, and the city needed space for new bodies to be buried. Relocating the bodies meant the land could be reused—and in doing so, why not create a reminder to the wealthy citizenry of Évora that their material possessions would mean nothing in the afterlife?
The bones alone win the chapel zero points for subtlety, but lest the message continue to elude you, a poem hangs from one of the pillars:
"Where are you going in such a hurry traveler? Pause ... do not advance your travel; You have no greater concern Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.
Recall how many have passed from this world, Reflect on your similar end, There is good reason to reflect If only all did the same. …”
The bone chapel may not be large—just 61 feet by 36 feet—but it packs plenty more macabre messages into its diminutive space:
- Better off dead? On one wall—in the chapel’s eeriest display—two desiccated bodies hang by chains: one adult, and one child. Their identities are unknown, but legends abound. A cursed mother and child who were refused burial in a proper cemetery? An adulterer and the offspring produced by his sin? Above them, as if to discourage our pity for the unlucky pair, an inscription reads: “Better is the day of death than the day of birth.”
- Life after death: Rather than cover the ceiling with bones, the monks commissioned paintings of various death motifs—symbols like ravens, scythes, and (of course) skulls. Among them, inscriptions remind us not to fear the afterlife: “I shall not die, but live.” The altar and crucifix at the back of the chapel reinforces the path to eternal life.
- First-class accommodations: Not all of the bodies here are out on display. A white coffin by the altar holds the remains of the three monks who first founded the 13th-century church complex that houses the chapel, and a floor tomb holds a bishop killed by Napoleon’s troops in 1808.
Discover the Capela dos Ossos—and the less macabre charms of Évora—when you join O.A.T. on Backroads of Iberia: Spanish Paradores & Portuguese Pousadas. Glimpse the bizarre handiwork of a modern-day monk with a vision in this short film:
Produced by Dylan Thuras