“Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?”
But hardly anybody’s travelling these days Spice you say.
Ah, but we are all, always travelling.
Tomorrow, November 2, is El Día de los Muertos, (“The Day of the Dead”), when family and friends honour the departed by telling funny stories from their lives, holding parties with their loved ones’ favourite food, music, poetry, art and flowers, and travelling to their gravesites or shrines. It’s a party to call up the souls of our beloved departed that live eternally in our heart—a party to assuage, even laugh at our own fear of dying.
Although Magellan and I don’t celebrate El Día de los Muertos, we sort of did one October Sunday in Évora, Portugal.
Entering Capela dos Ossos—a spectacular (some might say macabre) display of the shortness of life and the inevitability of death—we were greeted by a rhyme on the lintel above the arched chapel door. Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos, (“We bones, are here, waiting for yours.”)
Waiting, oh yes indeed. Plastered into the walls in the empyreal space of the Chapel of Bones are more than 5,000 skulls staring back ay you, blankly. Skulls, femur bones, knucklebones and craniums artfully arranged floor-to-ceiling on the walls of the three knaves and all eight pillars. A disembodied space of floating body spirits.
The Chapel of Bones lies on the site of the dorm and reflecting room of the three Franciscan monks who founded the Igreja de Sao Francisco in the 13th century. The skulls of the monks don’t gaze down upon you; they’re encased in a small white coffin by the altar.
Heightening the theme (and what I found grotesque) are two partially skeletal, partially mummified bodies of a woman and a girl, like marionettes. It’s believed the woman died between the ages of 30 and 50, probably from a tooth infection, while the girl was just two or three years old.
The rib-vaulted ceiling is painted with small scenes accompanied by Latin phrases such as “I leave, but I don’t die.” Bricks plastered in white are painted with motives symbolising death along with religious statues and paintings in Renaissance and Baroque styles.
While the church was founded in the 13th century, the Chapel of Bones came centuries later.
In the 16th century under the reign of King Manuel when Portugal controlled India, China, Persia, Brazil and Ethiopia, Évora was noted for its wealth. The city’s more than 40 medieval cemeteries were overcrowded and thought to be occupying too much space. It was the Franciscan monks who came up with the solution of exhuming the bodies from these cemeteries, the de-fleshed bones of people from all walks of life, and cementing them into an ossuary. Exhibiting naked bones—called Morte Secca (“Dry Death”) was in tandem with the Counter-Reformation belief that placing bones in chapels brought the departed souls closed to god. Awaiting placement in the Chapel, the exhumed bones rested in the gardens of Igreja de Sao Francisco, where (as you can see) many of them were scribbled with graffiti by vandals.
Did we find it morbid? Thought-provoking? Funny? Yes to all three. How we wished we could understand what the other visitors to the Chapel of Bones were saying. But judging from their body language, their reactions mirrored ours. In the 21stcentury the superstitions of medieval times have given way to ubiquitous modern depictions of skulls in art, jewelry, clothing, umbrellas, party lights, ad infinitum, to the point where skulls have lost much of their fearsome meaning. Almost.
On a pillar inside the chapel hangs a poem by Father António da Ascenção Telese from the 1840s that has been translated by Friar Carlos A. Martins. The poem clarifies the purpose of the Chapel of Bones—the transience of life in the undeniable presence of death:
Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?
Stop … do not proceed;
You have no greater concern,
Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.
Recall how many have passed from this world,
Reflect on your similar end,
There is good reason to reflect
If only all did the same.
Ponder, you so influenced by fate,
Among the many concerns of the world,
So little do you reflect on death;
If by chance you glance at this place,
Stop … for the sake of your journey,
The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.
And where best to pause after such a sobering visit? Magellan and I chose the Travessa da Caraca bar on Balcao Street. A man on a bike lingered, oddly, watching us enjoy our G&Ts, like us in no hurry to travel on to the next pause in life’s journey.
Here’s a good site for more on The Chapel of Bones.
Examples of skulls in art abound on Pinterest.