Spiritual Spaces

Contemplation in a Capuchin Crypt – Rome

Beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome is an ossuary filled with the bones of past friars. Pope Urban VIII commissioned the church in 1626. On its completion in 1631, the Pope’s nephew, Cardinal Antonio Barberini, directed that the remains of past Capuchin friars be transferred to the crypt. The friars believed that the skeletons of their brothers should not be seen as something unpleasant or dark but as reminders of our own transience in this world. The bones were placed on the walls in patterns which are full of religious symbolism. The brothers would reflect and pray in the sanctuary. There was a feeling among the friars that death could come at any time something to be embraced without dread. Thus a plaque in the crypt reads “ what you are now, we once were; what we are now you shall be.” It is a rather macabre sentiment to be expressed while you are surrounded by so many skeletons!

The crypt is divided into six small chapels which are decorated with over 4,000 Capuchin friars who passed between 1528 and 1870. In the museum leading to the crypt is Caravaggio’s painting, St Francis in Meditation. This painting was created specifically for the convent of the Capuchin Friars. It is in chiaroscuro style (a play of light and dark) with St Francis contemplating a skull which he is holding.

Over its history, the crypt has seen famous visitors. The Marquis de Sade visited in 1775 and was struck by the bones and design. Mark Twain described the “picturesque horrors” of the crypt in his 1869 book Innocents Abroad. Nathaniel Hawthorne visited in 1860. His impressions are inscribed in the crypt:

“The cemetery of the Capuchins is no place to nourish celestial hopes: the soul sinks forlorn and wretched under all this burden of dusty death. Thank Heaven for its blue sky; it needs a long, upward gaze to give us back our faith. Not here can we feel ourselves immortal, where the very altars in these chapels of horrible consecration are heaps of human bones.”

Whatever impressions you get from this unique sanctuary you will not soon forget it! It is a work of art which brilliantly depicts the fleeting nature of this life.