Have you ever heard of a “Chapel of Bones”? Before moving to Portugal, I never had.
As you might imagine from the name, it’s a chapel built from and/or lined with human bones.
This was a practice of the Catholic Church in Europe in centuries past, when space for burying human remains was limited. The deceased were laid to rest and then, after about ten years had passed, their remains were exhumed and placed in tombs or chapels. I have discovered the existence of at least four such sanctuaries in Portugal, three of which are in the Algarve region, where we live. I’ve always found them kind of fascinating… but had never visited one yet.
I like to consider how different cultures lived in times past and what motivated them to carry out certain activities or traditions that might seem bizarre, macabre or at the very least, unusual to us today. It would be easy to simply dismiss them as “weird”or “primitive”, but I find that if I am willing to dig a bit deeper, I can often find more profound meanings that give a whole different perspective on who they were as a people and even on how they approached life and God.
Faro, our city, hosts the Bones Chapel of the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, so I decided to pay it a visit as my challenge on this seventh day. The Carmelite monks built the beautiful church in 1719, adding on the Chapel of Bones behind it in 1816, exactly two centuries ago.
In order to reach the Bones Chapel, one must first pass through the Mother Church. It’s front and side altars are very ornately decorated with a plethora of images and icons and the overall feel was quite solemn and heavy to me. I then passed through a small side room and out into the rear courtyard leading to the chapel.
Before entering, I read the inscription above the door: Stop here and think of the fate that will befall you. And so I did. I sat for a moment to meditate on this phrase that the builders clearly felt epitomized the significance of this construction. It would appear that their desire was for each of us who walked through the chapel’s archway to reflect on how temporary this life is and that sooner or later, death comes to us all.
While this might seem a rather depressing thought, I received it as a wonderful invitation to live fully, intentionally and passionately. To embrace each day and all that it brings. To take advantage of every opportunity God opens up for me. Because one day, all that will remain of my physical body on this earth will be bones.
Man is like a mere breath; His days are like a passing shadow. Psalm 144:4
In stark contrast to the macabre idea of a chapel built entirely of the skulls and femurs of over a thousand monks, held together with mortar, is the bright and almost cheerful feel of the sanctuary itself. Its large doorway and windows welcome a flood of sunlight from the green courtyard and I found the simplicity of its design quite beautiful.
While I marveled at the geometric pattern of skulls peering down at me, I couldn’t help but notice that some had survived the years of wear better than others. Ironically, the soundtrack that accompanied my observations was that of children laughing and playing in the church’s nursery school yard, adjacent to the chapel.
I also loved this section along the outside entrance, where the crevices left by decayed bones had made way for tender green plants to spring forth: a beautiful analogy of how our God transforms death into life, trading beauty for our ashes.
All in all, it was an interesting adventure and I was surprised by the beauty I found in something so peculiar and seemingly ghoulish as a chapel made from human bones. I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on death, resurrection and life and on how, so mercifully, God is willing to exchange our brokenness for plenitude in Him.
To all who mourn in Israel,
he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness,
they will be like great oaks
that the LORD has planted
for his own glory.