Boning Up on Europe's Relics
You'll see enough bones scattered throughout Europe's chapels and churches to satisfy any bone seeker. Europe's openness to bones intrigues Americans.
Centuries ago, relics were an important focus of worship. These holy relics, often bones, were the "ruby slippers" of the medieval age. They gave you power — got your prayers answered and helped you win wars — and ultimately helped you get back to your eternal Kansas.
The first tourists were actually pilgrims, visiting Spain's Santiago de Compostela, which housed the bones of St. James. During medieval times, it made good business sense for churches to have relics. In 829, the young but powerful city-state of Venice was really nothing on the religious map. It needed relics to give it some clout. A band of merchants trading in Alexandria, Egypt, stole (or, as local historians say, rescued) the bones of St. Mark from the Muslims, brought the bones to Venice, and, bam, Venice became an important religious destination, attracting pilgrims and their money.
The bones of monks were venerated, and sometimes even artistically arranged in crypts and chapels. In Rome's Cappuccin Crypt, hundreds of skeletons decorate the walls to the delight — or disgust — of the always wide-eyed visitor. The crypt offers unusual ideas in home decorating, as well as a chance to pick up a few of Rome's most interesting postcards. A similar Cappuccin Crypt is a highlight of many visits to Palermo in Sicily. In Évora, Portugal, osteophiles make a pilgrimage to the macabre "Chapel of Bones" at the Church of St. Francis, lined with the bones of thousands of monks.
Overcrowding in cemeteries has prompted unusual solutions. Austria's tiny town of Hallstatt is bullied onto a thin strip of land between a swan-ruled lake and a steep mountain. Space is so limited in Hallstatt, bones get only 12 peaceful buried years in the church cemetery before making way for the newly dead. The result is a fascinating chapel of bones in the cemetery. Each skull is lovingly named, dated, and decorated, with the men getting ivy, and the women, roses. Hallstatt stopped this practice in the 1960s, about the same time the Catholic Church began permitting cremation. But one woman (who died in 1983) managed to sneak her skull in later (dated 1995, under the cross, with the gold tooth).
Some cities such as Paris and Rome have catacombs. Many cities opened up a little extra space by deboning graveyards which used to surround medieval churches.
During the French Revolution, Paris experienced a great church cemetery land grab. Skeletons of countless Parisians were dug up and carefully stacked along miles of tunnels beneath the city.
I miss the days when you could play Hamlet and pick up a skull in the dank dark privacy of your own stretch of an empty Parisian tunnel. I can still feel the skull I once held in my hand. Looking into its eye sockets, I pondered the ease at which I could pop that fellow right into my day bag and head home with the ultimate souvenir. I lost my nerve and returned the skull to its pile. The next year, having stored up enough nerve to actually go ahead and do the dirty deed, I returned to find the skulls wired together. A head in the bag is worth two in the tunnel.
Seekers of the macabre can bone up on Europe's more obscure ossuaries, but any tourist will stumble onto bones and relics. Whether in a church, chapel, or underground tunnel in Europe, you might be surprised by who's looking at you, kid.