Thursday, December 20, 2012

Memento Mori: The Capuchin Crypt

Tucked quietly just off Rome's Piazza Barberini is the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, which is lovely and historic but it's what lies beneath the structure that draws curious inside.

The bones of more than 4,000 bodies decorate several crypt niches along a subterranean passage in the depths of the church.

The Capuchin monks who arrived at the church in 1631 brought the remains of their bretheren and filled the crypt with soil from Jerusalem. Fr. Michael of Bergamo began the tradition of decorating the crypts in this fashion.
The crypt has inspired many a writer to ponder the site's meaning and impact:

"The reflection that he must someday be taken apart like an engine or a clock...and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes, did not distress this monk in the least. I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present”  —Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869


James Carlson said...

In reference to your comment: "The Capuchin monks who arrived at the church in 1631 brought the remains of their bretheren and filled the crypt with soil from Jerusalem", have you ever heard elsewhere of people filling a crypt with soil from another location? It's an odd sort of fetish rite that I can't seem to find anywhere else except in reference to "vampires" needing to rest in the same soil in which they were originally buried (this is where Bram Stoker got the idea for the shipment of 40 crates of soil from Transylvania to London in his novel "Dracula"). I don't want to suggest that the original Capuchin monks were vampires, mind you, and I don't think they were ever buried in Jerusalem in the first place, but the practice does seem to be somewhat rare. Other than as some form of "wishful thinking" reflecting the Holy character of Jerusalem, I can't think of any reason for them to take this somewhat expensive step into the afterlife. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Enjoy your "much needed respite". I lived in Italy for three years while in the military, and there's truly no place on earth like it. You'll have great memories for a lifetime, I'm sure.

Cullan Hudson said...

I, too, was struck by that odd facet of their burial practices. And the vampire connection immediately sprung to mind. I can't--like you--think of any other instances where native or holy soil from a particular place was used/needed for reburial.