Mental Floss

Strange Geographies: Portugal's Bone Chapel

Ransom Riggs
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I spent a few weeks in Portugal during the spring of 2006, and one of the most striking things about its many churches and chapels and religious monuments was, well, how dark they were. Not literally -- there was plenty of light. But it seemed like every statue of Christ was weeping blood, and every church had a display case of gruesome relics in the foyer; a saint's pickled eyeballs here, a toe with dessicated skin still clinging to it there. But of all these monuments to pain and death, nothing could match the Capela dos Ossos -- the Chapel of the Bones. Located next to the Church of St. Francis in the medieval town of Evora, it's a large room decorated with the bones of more than 5,000 monks, exhumed from local churchyards to be used as building materials way back in the 16th century.

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The monks who built the chapel got creative with their bones, using them not just to fill wall space, but to create all sorts of decorative patterns. It's more or less what I imagine a Martha Stewart Halloween special would be like.

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As an added bonus, the monks decided to hang two corpses on the wall from a chain -- that of a woman and a child. They've been there for hundreds of years, and they don't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. No one is sure exactly who the unlucky pair are, but rumor has it they were cursed by a powerful man and were refused burial in local cemeteries. (That doesn't explain how they died, though; methinks it was not of natural causes.)

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The strangest part about the Chapel was that it didn't seem all that creepy. There was something sanitized and touristy about the whole thing, with ropes sectioning off the walls so you couldn't get too close, and an information kiosk just outside the door. I nearly forgot that I was walking around the house of 5,000 corpses.

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Check out more Strange Geographies columns here.


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