If you want to get into the spirit of Halloween, you couldn’t do better than a quick visit to Capela Dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), in the UNESCO Heritage town of Évora, Portugal. The interior is decorated by a macabre display of the skulls and bones of nearly 5,000 14th and 15th century monks.
Located next to the entrance of the Church of Saint Francis, the 12m x 11m chapel of worship emanates a spooky feeling of ghosts and ghouls from the moment you step inside. Passing under the sign proclaiming “nos ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos” (“we bones that here are, await yours”), you soon sync with the 1845 poem that hangs from the wall, asking visitors to reflect on their own journey towards inevitable death.
Take a deep breath.
Baroque in design, eerie and sinister, this 16th century shrine, built by a Franciscan monk in the spirit of the period’s counter-reformation, is quite a sight. Although it resembles modern shrines to the memory of the dead – such as the Rwandan and Cambodian genocide museums – it differs in that its very construction is formed by the mixing of bone fragments to form part of the mortar and foundation.
Furthermore, the arches, walls, domes and columns of the sanctuary are decorated with thousands of bones and hundreds of skulls. Natural light dances across the disturbing interior, further illuminating the presence of death. Frightening eye-sockets peer out from the walls of tightly loaded leg and arm bones. Stacked as neatly as a timber yard, the mass collection of skeletal material gives off a distinctly Halloween atmosphere, with two human corpses chained to the wall. One of an adult, the other, a child.
Chilling, yet smart and well kept, the chapel scene strikes a balance between ‘reflective dignity’ and ‘eerie ghostliness’. Leaving visitors with not only an opportunity to think on their own journey through life to death, but also a chance to acknowledge on the many past lives of these previous bone owners.
It certainly gave me the creeps. And I have no doubt that although Halloween comes but once a year, this chapel is haunted all year round.
Believe me, I didn’t stay long enough to start counting how many troubled ghosts and spirts lay within this dead-cert of a spirit world.
Get in, and then out, as quickly as you can.