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Traveling Rome: The Capuchin Crypt
Rome, the ancient city. Home to the ruins of the greatest empire ruled by man, power seat of the Catholic world, and the capitol of pick-pocketing. In my new series, I’ll take you through the history of some of the greatest sights in the ancient city and give you some practical advice if you plan on visiting there yourselves. So without further ed-do, I present to you, Rome.
9am to 6:30pm
Metro A to Barberini
As a Catholic site you are required to cover your shoulders and knees. No photos allowed in the crypt.
The Capuchin Order
A long time ago there lived a man named Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, or, to his friends, Francesco, which means the Frenchman. History, though, would remember him as St. Francis of Assisi. One fateful day, St. Francis heard a sermon on Matthew 10:9 which talks about abandoning all your earthly wealth and preaching the word of Jesus Christ. St. Francis took this passage in a very literal sense. He immediately renounced all of his worldly possessions and donned his simple brown robes. Now to us, the idea of a monk is a common thing, we can instantly picture the robes and image their simple little lives. That wasn’t the case in the time of St. Francis, he really was a pioneer in the Christian universe. St. Francis chose to wear a simple, rough robe, go completely barefoot, and preach the word of God to the people, which is something non-ordained people simply weren’t supposed to do. His lifestyle spoke out to a few and eventually St. Francis took his handful of followers to Rome to speak to the Pope. Pope Innocent III was initially skeptical of the group, but after a cardinal endorsement and some one-on-one time, the Pope decided to endorse St. Francis and the Franciscan Order was born.
Fast forward a couple centuries to the friar Matteo de Bascio of the now famous Franciscan Order. By now, the Franciscan Order was a huge movement in Italy with monasteries across the country. Friar Matteo felt that the Franciscan Order had grown away from the teachings of St. Francis. He sought to return to the simple life of penance he saw in St. Francis’ lifetime and thought current Franciscans had grown too complacent. So friar Matteo and a couple of his followers left the Franciscan Order to live out their own beliefs. The church wasn't okay with that and charged the friars with the abandonment of their religious duties. In order to hide from church authorities, they turned to another monk order of the Camaldolese in central Italy and hid among them for a few years. They donned the stylish brown hoods and beards the order was famous for. Beyond the fashion statement, the hood and beard were the common attire for hermits at the time. Eventually, after eight years, friar Matteo obtained an official endorsement from Pope Clement VII and the group was allowed to form the order Hermit Friars Minor. Through the years, this order would grow in popularity and eventually become the Capuchin Monks, named after the hoods they had taken from the Camaldolese.. Bonus facts, both the Capuchin monkey and cappuccino are named after the monks because their brown color were similar to the robes worn by the Capuchins.
The Capuchin Crypt
At its heart, the Capuchin crypt is a memento moria, which is Latin for "remember that you will die." Written inside the Capuchin crypt in five languages are the words “What you are now, we used to be. What we are now, you will be.” Now, this may seem pretty morbid, but to the Capuchins who watch over the crypt this idea of death isn’t something to be terrified of. The Capuchins realize that death is a part of every person and is the ending point of this life, but that isn’t a bad thing. Death is the final release, the doorway that takes you to our creator Jesus Christ. Therefore, death is a holy rite that transforms everyone and can be seen as something sacred.
No one knows exactly the when, why, or who when it comes to the Capuchin crypt as no written records document its creation. Here’s what we do know. In 1626 Pope Innocent VIII, who’s brother, Cardinal Antonio Barberini, was a Capuchin, had the church Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins, commissioned in Rome. From its inception the church was used as a crypt and when the Capuchins came, they brought 300 cartloads worth of bones from over a thousand dead friars exhumed from their previous graves. At first, though, the crypt was a fairly normal affair. The bones were lined up in the ground and soil shipped from Jerusalem was used to cover them. From 1631 to 1870 the crypt was continuously used to house the bones of newly deceased friars. Of course, somewhere during that time they ran out of room for them. No matter, they merely dug up the old bones and threw the newly deceased into the once occupied grave. What to do with all the old bones though? There are many versions as to who thought to use the bones to decorate the crypt. Some reports say an unnamed German priest did the work, others claim it was French Capuchins taking refugee during the French Revolution, and still others say it wasn’t a Capuchin at all, but an artist the Capuchins were hiding. Regardless, at the end of the day the artist is unimportant. The crypt is whatever you walk away from it with, be it good or bad. You can’t walk through the crypt without taking something.
The Capuchin Museum
Before you can enter the Capuchin Crypt you have to go through the entirety of the newly constructed Capuchin Museum. Across the last couple decades the Capuchin Order became concerned that all the world would know about their order was what they saw within the crypt. To help people understand that the Capuchin Order was still alive and active, they built the museum to teach all the many visitors to the ancient crypt. Now I’m sure you’ll be dying to see the crypt and the museum can be a little repetitive, I even rushed through the last part, but it is worth seeing in its own right. The museum covers the artifacts and deeds of the many saints that were part of the Capuchin Order. Display cases house the saint’s artifacts, showing the brown robes and knotted cord belts. You can see the many things that were confiscated from members who joined the order. Most impressive of all, though, is the giant LED screens that show pictures of the saints and talk about their lives. It really is quite cutting edge for an Order that preaches simplicity. On the whole, though, it achieves what the monks desired, a personal look into an Order that is about far more than a crypt full bones.
Visiting the Crypt
As you enter the Crypt you’ll be placed on a walkway. The walkway travels through a series of archways that separate the six rooms inside the crypt. To the left side of the walkway is a wall. Usually this would be boring, but the crypt makes it the most uncomfortable part of the whole experience. You see, the wall is covered in bone decorations, and it’s only a foot or two away from you. I found myself hugging the left side of the walkway a lot during my visit. The left side is where the actual crypts are located. Each room features a dirt floor with small cross statues. The crosses mark graves of monks who weren’t used to decorate the walls and ceiling. They also feature the main displays that the crypts are known for. I'll briefly go into each of the rooms.
The Crypt of the Three Skeletons
The first room has one of the most unsettling displays in the whole exhibit. Its title is the Cyrpt of Three Skeletons, and the display is one of the skeletons. Mounted on the ceiling is the skeleton of a small child holding a scythe and a scale made of bone. Both are symbols of death, the scythe being the tool of the reaper who cuts down the living and the scale symbolizing the final judgement where God ways out the actions of the dead. The fact that a child holds these death symbols could be a comment on the beginning and ending of life. The far wall houses an elaborate altar created from a wide array of human bones. Flanking the altar are two standing skeletons adorned in the Capuchin robes with their hands folded and heads bowed in prayer. The side walls feature two side tombs crafted from bones featuring more robe covered skeletons laying in normal burial positions. For some reason the side tombs really struck me during the visit, the only normalcy in a tomb of crazy.
The Crypt of Leg Bones and Thigh Bones
The next crypt is the Crypt of Leg Bones and Thigh Bones. While the name might be uninspiring, the room itself most certainly is. The Leg Bone Crypt has a lot of bones. I can’t say that enough, a lot of bones. Every wall is covered in stacked leg bones with skulls on top. The two side walls feature four robe wearing skeletons each, bowed in prayer. The back wall has a reconstruction of the sigil of the Capuchins, two arms, real arms of course, crossed underneath a beautiful roof of leg and skull. The ceiling of the crypt was my favorite in the entire building, featuring a single rectangular display of numerous bones.
The Crypt of Pelvises
The crypt of the Pelvises features a whole bunch of, yep, pelvises. A canopy of countless pelvises covers three bowed monks who stand in front of even more pelvic bones. The canopy hangs from a fringe made of vertebrae and skulls. To the sides are two more bone side tombs with their own monks. The ceiling also features pelvises, aligned in almost chandelier patterns.
The Crypt of Skulls
The crypt of Skulls contains skulls. Lots of skulls. It is here that you get a feeling for how many monks really went into the crypts decorations. Dozens of skulls form brilliant arches for three praying monks. Vertebrae beyond counting decorate the ceiling in elaborate circle patterns and even more skulls form the side tombs. There's something simply humbling about starring into the countless empty eye sockets in this room. Everywhere you look, they stare back.
The Mass Chapel
The most unique room in the whole crypt is the Mass Chapel in that, out of all the rooms, it is the only one that looks completely normal. That’s right, not a single bone above ground in the whole room. The Mass Chapel was the room that monks worshiped in and was thus left untouched. That doesn’t mean the room doesn’t have things worth seeing though. The painting at the altar depicts St. Francis of Assisi and fellow Saints Felix of Cantalice and Anthony of Padau. The three saints are empowered by Jesus and Mary to free the souls of Purgatory. A plaque underneath the painting on the altar bears the letters DOM which stand for Deo optimo maximo or To God, the best and greatest. Inside the plaque is a human heart. I said no bones, I didn’t say anything about human body parts. The heart belonged to Maria Felice Peretti, who was the greatniece of Pope Sixtus V and a proud supporter of the Capuchin Order. It was a great honor for her I’m sure.
The Crypt of the Resurrection
The final room is the Crypt of the Resurrection. The center display in the room is a beautiful picture of Jesus resurrecting Lazarus. As a final message to the visitor, it’s a potent one. This lonely crypt is not the end of the Capuchins who’s bones hang on the wall. The resurrection of Lazarus is one more reassurance that the Capuchin Crypt isn’t meant to be a morbid thing, but a celebration of the life to come. Two pillars and an arch of bones frame the picture, skulls mounted on the top. The ceiling features large stars made of pelvis bones and vertebrae. The left and right walls of the crypt feature tombs made entirely of bones each housing the skeleton of a monk dressed in his brown robes and hood. The skeleton on the left is particularly interesting as he is one of the most preserved monks in the whole exhibit. A brow, part of his nose, and even some facial hair has survived decay.