The Italian city of Milan has much to recommend it: a world-renowned fashion industry, an enthralling charm and, of course, its gelato.
But did you know that there are also some pretty weird sights in this stylish and sophisticated city? Sights like the Bone Church, known in Italian as the Chiesa di San Bernardino alle Ossa. Duck inside the dimmed light of the building and let your eyes get used to the dank interior before slipping inside the morbidly decorated ossuary…
History of the church
In 1145, a hospital and cemetery were built in front of the Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore. When the cemetery ran out of space in 1210 a room was constructed next to it to hold the remains of those who died, then a church was added on in 1269. When it was restored in 1679, the bones were used to decorate the walls of the ossuary, but this church was destroyed 30-odd years later. A new building sprang up on the site in 1712 and was dedicated to St. Bernardino of Siena.
It is thought the bones that now adorn the walls of the chapel are partly from the original ossuary, some are from the old hospital (both from the patients and the monks who worked there) and others are from people who died in prison.
Located just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Duomo, this church looks perfectly ordinary from the outside. Even once you slip inside its white-washed walls, the interior seems fairly innocuous. But walk down the quiet hallway following the signs to the ossuary and you’ll soon find yourself in a room surrounded on all sides by human bones.
Wire cages are used to keep the skulls, humeri, tibiae and femur bones in place, and these are arranged in intricate patterns to depict ornate crosses and other symbols of the religious environment. A large display of skulls over the back doors is made from the remains of criminals who were beheaded for various reasons, and these are set apart from the ‘good’ people whose bones are contained within the other cages.
Although it sounds grizzly, the ossuary is actually a very peaceful and respectful place. There are chairs dotted around the room if visitors want to sit awhile and take in the atmosphere, or even offer a prayer for their own deceased loved ones.
While you are there, be sure to check out the rounded ceiling of the chapel where a fresco painted by Sebastiano Ricci in 1695 remains. The artwork is layered in the four corners where the walls meet the ceiling to give it a 3D effect.
The Chiesa di San Bernardino alle Ossa is open between 7.30am and 6pm Monday to Friday with a lunch hour between 12pm and 1pm. On Saturdays visitors can pop in between 7.30am and 12.30pm, then on Sundays the church is open from 9.30am to 12.30pm. Mass is held at 8.30am on weekdays and Saturdays, and at 11am on Sundays.
If you are lucky, there may be a guide on hand to show you around and explain the history of the building. It helps if you already know conversational Italian, although it is likely the staff there will know some English.
Although Milan is quite a small city, it still helps to have access to a decent pair of wheels. Hire a car from Milan airport with Auto Europe and you will be able to save time whizzing from site to site, taking in all the things the city has to offer without waiting around for public transport.