Underneath the Santa Maria Immacolata Concezione church is a crypt. I’ve never seen a crypt and knew I wanted in the moment I read about it in my now shamelessly scribbled and appreciated guidebook so when the day finally came, I made sure to cover my shoulders and hide my knees and then giddily bounded up the stairs beside the church ready to be spooked.
Inside at the entrance, a lady double checks our dress code, asks what language we prefer to speak in, takes our mandatory euro donation and reminds us, very strictly, no photographs. These sorts of places are sacred and demand respect regardless, but this is no ordinary crypt; no catacombs or faceless tombs here, instead, the bones of around “4,000 Capuchin monks are arranged in peculiar decorative designs around the skeletons of their kinsmen.”1
Peculiar and decorative it was – femur bones and ribs displayed in patterns on the walls, used as chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, and arranged as symbolic motifs of butterflies and crossbones – but it wasn’t particularly spooky to me and in fact, I almost wish it was more so. It was, as my guidebook said, “oddly beautiful” but I couldn’t quite get into the awe and the realization of the impermanence of life within it. The visualizations were too stark to be real to me – I realized I was staring at real bones of real monks but it wasn’t hitting me the way I wished it had. I wish it affected me more, I wish it scared me more.
But “oddly beautiful” sufficed and the last alcove was the most affecting: tombstones marking graves in the dirt in front of us, skeletons positioned in their monk robes around the walls, and most enchantingly, death, hanging above us. Death, fully complete in real skeleton form, hanging from the ceiling facing directly down, one skeletal hand holding a scythe, and the other, a scale, both made out of bones, taunting us with its absurdity. I wished I could’ve stared straight into its hollow sockets lying right beneath it – that might have been the effect I was looking for, that the crypt was hoping to convey:
“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”
It was probably the best version of the Last Judgement I’ll ever see.
For images (like the feature one) and more information on the Santa Maria Immacolata Concezione crypt please click here.
1 Fodor’s Italy 2012