Skeletons in Church: Rollin’ Dem Roman Bones

Skeleton in niche

The churches of Rome house a considerable part of the priceless art collection that draws visitors from around the globe.

There seems to be an almost unlimited number of churches with famous artwork; so many in fact, that you could spend most of your time just visiting one after the other.

On our last trip to Rome, I visited the Church of Santa Maria Del Popolo. Famous for paintings and sculpture by the likes of Raphael, Bernini, and Caravaggio, it’s a veritable who’s who of Renaissance heavyweights. 

The Renaissance paintings didn’t disappoint, and while memorable, they weren’t nearly as fascinating as the artwork not mentioned in my guidebook: skeletons, skulls and bones … all over the place!

Skull

While to American eyes these skeletons wouldn’t be out of place at a Halloween haunted house, there’s actually a deadly serious (pun intended) message here: Memento Mori or “Remember that you will die.” The Black Death had just wiped out half the population of Europe, so there were lots of graveyards – frequently marked by skulls and bones. These grim reminders made certain that the message of death and mortality wasn’t missed by anyone. 

Skeleton floor mosaic

Rich parishioners wanted a primo burial spot in church, and were required to pay for the monuments, artwork, and chapel. It didn’t take long for hungry artists (like Bernini) to see the market, and voila: skeletons, skulls and crossbones in the chapels, on the walls, and even on the floors.

Skull and Crossbones in floor

By using skeleton art, the church (tending to its afterlife business) was reminding its members to be concerned about what happens after death. The physical body is nothing but bones, and the soul goes to one of two places. 

Skull and Crossbones

This art was compelling in a creepy and macabre way, and it made a nice change from a steady diet of Renaissance masterpieces.

THE LESSON
This is a church after all, so I certainly appreciate their “Memento Mori” message to help keep sinners in line. However, the heathen in me says another take-away could be the oft-quoted “Carpe Diem,” or “Seize the Day,” (RIP Robin Williams). But I think that a man of the times probably said it best. John Heywood wrote in 1546:

“Whan the sunne shinth make hay. Whiche is to say,
Take time whan time cometh, lest time steale away.”

This is my favorite because, even though it’s legit, it sounds like a line from a B-grade Robin Hood remake. I see Robin turn to Little John and say:

“Fetchuth me yon flagon o’ mead.”

Happy Trails,
James

Skeleton

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

61 thoughts

  1. Absolutely fascinating James.
    I didn’t notice the skeletons when I was in Rome in 1976. (probably too full of alcohol to notice any skulls & bones actually).

      1. Whoa, that’s a lot of skulls! It’s rather disturbing to me, but European history is pretty strange. I learned something new that’s for sure. Hallstatt is the name of a celtic era in Austria, isn’t it? I didn’t know there was a place named that. Were there celtic historic sites there as well?

  2. “Life’s too short” that’s our motto. Fascinating post James – I guess we missed that church in Rome. Like you I’d have gone for the renaissance masters and probably ended up being more interested in dem bones 🙂
    Alison

    1. Strangely Alison, this church, Santa Maria Del Popolo, has a wonderful collection of art, but it really isn’t that well publicized in the tourist brochures. So I’m not surprised that you missed it. Next trip. ~James

  3. Fascinating! I’m with Robin (Hood) Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely, in a well preserved shell, but rather to skid in sideways, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming “Woo Hoo what a ride!”

    1. Well said Laura, well said. I always liked “I’d rather wear out than rust.” And this morning on my jog, I definitely felt like I was in the wearing-out category. Phew! ~James

    1. We’ve seen a couple of ossuaries Andrew, and they definitely fit in the creepy category. I can understand the practical aspects of tombs filling up, and the necessity for moving bones, but building altars … I’m not so sure. ~James

    1. I’m always amazed at the amount of priceless art that’s scattered around Rome, with so little security in the buildings. There was a Carravaggio in this church that must have been worth millions. ~James

      1. And Caravaggio is one of the painters I really like, too ! I’ve never understood how they’re not all cleaned out in a trice.

    1. It’s interesting Peggy to see how different cultures handle and relate to death. After visiting this church, I kept my eye out for other skeletons, and they’re all over the place. ~James

  4. Our tour of the catacombs was downright creepy but the vision of all those graves has stuck with me. Funny how we look at death as tourists but not so much on a day-to-day basis. Thanks for another good post.

      1. Never have. Haven’t even seen anything other than a casket in a church, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t bones or ossaries, etc. on display. Just not where I go.

  5. James it definitely fits with my philosophy of live big every day. I don’t think I’ll go so far as to have my skeleton displayed on a church wall. 🙂
    You do find the most unique things don’t you? Loved this post.

      1. Oh that was a clever James. 🙂 Our upcoming trip is a bit of a flash through Rome but I will check out the location to see if we might make it work. Really intriguing.

  6. This is an interesting take on the ‘ABC Tour’ – bones in conjunction with (or in lieu of?) fine art. I did not see that when we were in Rome, so your story and photos are fascinating. The interesting part is the connection to the plagues that wiped out large parts of Europe’s population. I learn something new every time I read your stories and view your photos. – Mike

    1. Thanks Mike. I’ve read a bit about the Great Plague in Europe, and historically, it’s very interesting. Of particular interest to me are the social, financial, and political effects that the disease had. For instance – because of the radical decrease in the numbers of peasant laborers, they could demand higher wages from the (fewer) aristocrats that were left, which significantly increased their standard of living. And then there were the skeletons in church. ~James

    1. Thanks very much. It’s interesting how religious ideas change with cultures and through time. I agree that skeleton art is fascinating, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be tolerated in most US churches. ~James

    1. Thanks for your comment and for dropping by the blog Jolynn. I had seen a few skeletons in churches before but never of the quality, variety and number exhibited in the St. Maria church. Check the link near the end for lots of other examples. ~James

  7. My inner heathen agrees. Constant worries of the immortal soul is a waste of the life in which it was placed.

  8. James, this is fascinating! Having visited SO many churches in Scandinavia, this summer, I can say that they all hold their intrigue and charm. Personally, I find the focus on skeletons so interesting!

    1. I agree Dawn. Skeletons have been used as literary, metaphorical, and scientific devices for centuries – from poor Yorick to Lucy. Many people consider skeletons in church creepy, and why is that? This would be a good wine-infused book club conversation. ~James

  9. Plenty of that here in Mexico (both the church presence and the bones)!

    Looks like you enjoyed it as well 🙂

    I liked the practical purpose behind it all as well

    1. Thanks LuAnn. I really enjoy writing these types of posts. Unusual topics require me to do a bit of research, and these photos turned out nice. It’s also helps that bones in churches are so counter to the way things are done (and not done) in the US. ~James

  10. Makes me think of the part of the song that includes, “dem bones gonna rise again.” Cultures who spend everyday placating the spirits. My inner spirit is enjoying and appreciating each day. Interesting post, James.

    1. Shelley, we didn’t notice any bones when we were in Lima, but given the Latin American Day of the Dead culture, it doesn’t surprise me that they’re in Peruvian churches. ~James

    1. When the plague burned through Europe the conditions in large cities must have been horrific. I’ve read that people were dying so quickly and in such large numbers that there weren’t people to pick up and bury the dead. Given these conditions, how people could even look at skeletons is beyond me. But, I guess people can get accustomed to anything. ~James

  11. These skulls and skeletons appeal to me more than masterpieces of art. I remember visiting a cathedral in Germany where they showcased royal jewels and crowns — atop skulls. It made quite an impression on me as a teenager. I can’t tell you anything else about the cathedral but that.

    1. The Europeans are big on bones in church Juliann. We’ve seen them in a number of places. And because we’re so unaccustomed to seeing skeletons in the US, I can believe that they’d make quite an impression on a teenager. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment Tara and for dropping by the blog. The skeleton, death, afterlife connection never seems to have taken hold in the west. But, it was certainly interesting to see it in Rome. ~James

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