Bone chapels are unlikely to be the first thing you would associate with a trip to Portugal. When I first heard about these chapels built of human skeletons, it was enough to send shivers down my spine. Even so, I decided to see for myself how gruesome they really are.
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Portugal’s best known bone chapel is arguably the one in Évora. Inside the cool gloom of the chapel, bones cover every wall and column. The knobby femurs, smooth craniums, and long arm bones come from over 5,000 bodies, all arranged into intricate patterns 500 years ago.
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Deep inside the macabre structure, an entire skeleton hangs from its neck, head flopped onto the collarbone. Behind it dangles an even more disturbing sight – a child’s skeleton.
The Franciscan monks who built this ghoulish chapel next to the church of St. Francis wanted to encourage worshipers to contemplate the transitory nature of human life. The inscription above the door translates as “We bones that are here are waiting for yours”.
In the gardens of Igreja do Carmo (Carmelite church) sits another bone chapel with the same purpose. This one was built not from the bones of peasants, but from the bones of the same Carmelite monks that resided in the nearby church. The skulls that lined the exterior doorway have long since disappeared, but the bones and skulls that form the interior walls remain undisturbed.
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The patterns are not as detailed or fanciful as those in Évora, but the geometrical designs still hold an aesthetic as well as morbid appeal. Just don’t be surprised if the bright laughter of children from the neighboring playground interrupts your quiet contemplation of mortality.