The place really does exist - Church of Bone, Evora, Portugal
Notice the clever use of the pelvic bone in the lower portion of the photo.
“A church made of bone!?” I exclaimed. “Yes, and tastefully done too,” came Ralph’s reply. The bus taking both of us from the city of Palmyra in Syria continued to rumble along the dusty, desert highway as visions of a bone church unfurled in my mind. I again questioned, “Human bone?” and the answer, though expected, was still a surprising “Yes”. I contemplated such a church, and thought that anything constructed of human bone would be confined to the realm of computer games, where these unholy places were always guarded by a great horned demon who pursued any foolhardy intruder relentlessly with a massive spiked club. The words, “I must see this place!” soon leapt from my mouth with great conviction, and thus my quest was born.
Unfortunately, the learned Ralph could not recall the location of this sacred place as he happened upon it by accident during his travels in Portugal many years before. Thus I consulted the much-respected oracle called Google, and the answer was forthcoming. There were two such churches in Portugal - a smaller one in Faro, but the larger one, called Capela dos Ossos
(Chapel of Bone) resided at the St Francis Church in the
small town of Evora. It was constructed in the 16th century with the bones from the local graveyard.
Many weeks after this discussion with Ralph, I arrived in Portugal, and sallied forth in earnest towards my goal. Indeed, Portugal was an appropriate place for a quest, as throughout the whole Iberian Peninsula there are reminders of a medieval past in everywhere - most noticeably in the smaller population centres, which were always commanded by crenellated walls protecting a fort or small castle mounted on the highest point of the town.
This medieval past was no more evident than in the historic village of Sintra. Though there are many beautiful villages in the world, none quite evoke that feeling of stepping into a living fairytale that Sintra does. The village is nestled amongst steep hills, covered in lush foliage, from which emerged coloured spindly spires and stone buildings topped with rustic roofs. The more populated parts of the village were crisscrossed with steep, narrow bitumen roads or even narrower stone alleys. The outskirts were always stone-paved carriageways lined with venerable forests and stone walls slowly being subsumed by a thick green moss. It was simply the most magical village
I have ever seen.
Within Sintra lay one of the most charming palaces in Europe, the National Palace of Sintra. Unlike most palaces which can be quite ostentatious, this was an understated masterpiece with ceilings painted on a variety of themes - such as magpies, swans, ships, or doves. The most impressive room though was the Blazons Hall, which was partly decorated like a typically blue and white Royal Doulton porcelain plate. It was a pity that my pressing quest allowed only a day in Sintra, as it required a full three or four days in order to savour all the splendours it had on offer.
After brief visits to the church of Alcabaca and the gothic Santa Maria de Vitoria Monastery in Batalha, I ended on the penultimate stop of this rigorous quest - the incredible Convent of Mafra. This was a building of significant proportions - an endless array of rooms included a spectacular library, quaint bathroom, and one of the more bizarre rooms I have seen; the Trophy Room (or the Antler Room as I termed it) derived its name from the many dozens of antlers that festooned the interior, including walls, chairs and even
chandeliers. Though in Mafra one could glimpse remains of the deceased - none of them were human. However, this portent did suggest that the end of my quest was near.
Finally, the last day in Portugal saw me journey across hills and dales to the village of Evora, where within the confines of the town’s medieval stone walls lay the church of St Francis, and the infamous Church of Bone. My final charge towards the chapel was inconveniently halted by the afternoon siesta and so I patiently waited at the locked iron-gate. At the appointed hour, the large metal lock was unclamped with much noise and I strode forth to fulfil my quest. Turning the corner, I passed under a marble lintel at the entrance inscribed with the words “We bones that are here, we are waiting for yours” and crossed the threshold to behold what was beyond.
It was larger than I imagined, a long chamber partly lit by a sickly green light that illuminated the pillars that ran in two rows along the hall. But it was the walls that commanded the most attention, for they were totally covered by thousands upon thousands of whitened human
bones. The sight of this scene halted my movement as I observed this macabre scene before me. But it was not the ghoulish or grotesque place of my imaginings, instead it was a tastefully and creatively constructed room. The ends of bones were the prominent decoration, but they would be interspersed with ordered lines of skulls, or bones laid horizontally to form numerous grim patterns.
The more one looked, the more bones one could see. The pillars were likewise decorated, as were portions of the ceiling and the frames of the windows and doors. At one corner hung a ghastly skeleton, which appeared to be gilded and still wearing portions of a tattered shroud. Its head hung limply in lament, possibly doing so because its feet had detached from the rest of its body and were laying on the floor. At the far end from the entrance stood an altar with the image of a crucifix within a golden altarpiece, it was the only item that bore any semblance to a standard church. But even this area was tightly enclosed with ceiling decorations in the form of skulls and doorways jammed with an enormous number of bones around its
Other people came and went from the chapel and their reactions were a mixture of fascination and revulsion. Though the visit of most people was only for a maximum of ten minutes, I remained far longer, so long in fact, that there were many times when I was the sole occupant of this room - just me and innumerable human bones. Whilst surveying this church in one of these solitary periods, it was difficult to believe that someone could conceive the idea of a bone room for a religious purpose. However, this is placed into perspective by one of the poems written for the church, a fragment that contains the words: “Look you hasty walker!
Stop, don’t go further more;
No business is more important
Than this one at your display.
Bear in mind how many are here,
Think you’ll have a similar end!
Then to reflect, this is reason enough
As we all should think it over.”
So this is a room of prayer and meditation, though one of a most unlikely design. After almost 40 minutes in this place, the sight of all these bones started to slightly unnerve me, and I quietly
backed away into the world of the living.
My interest in the church of bone had been piqued several weeks before, and after many hours in a plane and an equal number on the road, the quest had finally been completed. The church presents a sobering display on the mortality we must all face, a mortality that prevails upon one to cherish those many moments we have before the cycle of life concludes, and our bones are as silent and lifeless as those that grace the fascinating but morbid interior of Capela dos Ossos
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