Thursday Salute to Originals: The Chapel of Bones

With Halloween fast approaching, everyone is on the lookout for a good scare. Whether it be watching scary movies or going to a haunted house, there is something purely enjoyable about being terrified around this time of year. So in the spirit of this frightful night, we at GPI Design thought we would call attention to one seriously creepy place sure to challenge your opinion of architecture and horror. Here’s a real life building made of human remains that is sure to make your skin crawl.

The Capela dos Ossos, otherwise known as the Chapel of Bones, is quite a departure from the typical church. An extension of the opulent Church of St. Francis in Portugal, the Chapel of Bones is a somber and morbid counterpart. Built in the 16th century, the chapel was originally developed as a way to free up land consumed by medieval cemeteries. With the construction of the Capela dos Ossos, the cemeteries and bodies buried within were to be exhumed, and the chapel would then serve as a permanent resting place for the remains. But instead of just accommodating the skeletons of the deceased, several monks decided that the bones should be used as an integral part of the chapel’s design. Instead of just being stored there, the bones were put on display as the central decorative element inside.

It is estimated that over 5,000 human corpses adorn the interior of this chapel. Bones of men, women, and children completely swathe the inside, permanently adhered to the building with cement in a morbidly artistic display. The ceiling also harbors graphic and gruesome depictions of death, further perpetuating a morose message of mortality. And if that’s still not enough for you to get the point (or seriously frightened), there are intact corpses hanging from the walls and cryptic messages of impending death and doom throughout.

Aside from the creepiness factor though, the chapel itself is oddly visually stunning. Used as ironic building blocks, skulls, vertebrae, and appendages create disturbing, yet fascinating textures throughout the chapel. But it’s not simply this overall pattern that adds interest to the interior. The bones alone, with their unique bumps and grooves, add depth to this installation. Similar to the grain in wood, these contours of the bones are inherent in their beauty; they are what make the pieces unique and appealing. It is the thousands of individual bones intricately placed together that really create this holistic experience of light and shadow, life and death. It is strange how something can be so horrifying, yet beautiful and fascinating at the same time.

But just as intriguing as the interior is the affect that these remains have on our psyche. Bones in the Capela dos Ossos are unavoidable; they are everywhere you turn. There is no choice but to acknowledge the thousands of corpses that engulf the interior, and confront the inescapable reality of death. The way in which the bones are organized and adhered to the building is a reminder that bodies are simply mortal objects, things that will be the only evidence of existence after our demise. And while there is an overwhelming message of death, the chapel also breathes a message of life. It is impossible not to think about the all the existence that these skeletons once encompassed. These are not just decorative bricks or stones that comprise this interior; these are human remains that once lived and breathed. It forces a connection on a humanistic level, and prompts for reflection on life itself and one’s own transitory existence.

While initial thoughts of the Chapel of Bones may be of disturbance and horror, upon closer inspection one can see the beauty in both the interior and its underlying message. By appealing to both our visual and psychological senses, the Capela dos Ossos truly embodies something unique: an aesthetic that not only is disturbing and morbid to the core, but one that at the same time, celebrates life and death alike. And while we could have simply focused on all the ways in which a building inlaid with human body parts really creeps us out, we think you probably get the idea. Instead, we think it’s more important to recognize this building’s significance and its very distinctive (and spine-chilling) concept – even if it does sound more like a horror movie than a place of worship.

Image credit: Caffeine Obsessed, Mick L. Nsandre