Wall embellishments created out of human skulls and vertebrae, door frames embedded with femurs and ulnae ... it looks more like the set of a horror film or something out of the Addams family but actually, it’s one of the strangest, and most morbidly fascinating, churches in Milano: the Ossuary of the Church of San Bernardino alle Ossa (quite an appropriate name!). It’s very close to the Duomo so if you’re in the mood for something truly unforgettable take a chance and call in…
The ossuary chapel is accessed by a narrow atmospheric corridor immediately to the right of the church entrance, a small square-shaped room furnished simply with an altar and a niche depicting a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows kneeling next to the dead Jesus.
The walls of the chapel are almost entirely covered with human skulls and bones, placed in niches and on the cornices, pillars and doors. Skeletons are also used for the wall decorations. It is presumed that the exhumed bones are those of the deceased from the ex-Brolo leper hospital and the now defunct seventeenth-century cemeteries. The skulls enclosed in the cases above the entrance door are of offenders condemned to death by beheading.
The vault is frescoed by Sebastiano Ricci, precursor of Tiepolo, who introduced Venetian Baroque painting to Milano.
According to legend, on November 2nd, All Souls Day, a little girl, whose remains rest in the ossuary’s altar, comes back to life and coerces the other skeletons to join her in a macabre dance. Do you feel brave enough to visit the church on that day?
If you prefer to give the macabre dance scenario a miss and, instead, opt for the local area we suggest a wander around the imposing historic cloisters the adjacent Università Statale that create an evocative yet upbeat vibe with all the comings and goings of the Milano campus students. The benches next to San Bernardino, or under the trees in front of the University, are perfect for a pause or a quick lunch in spring or summer. Milano has endless gastro options, including street food, giving visitors a chance to savour the city through its food traditions.
In 1728 the King of Portugal John V visited the chapel and was so impressed by what he saw that he decided to have an identical sanctuary created in Evora, near Lisbon. He copied the ossuary in every detail and named it: la Capela dos Ossos.
Some descendants of Christopher Columbus can be found in the main church, the family tomb lies in the chapel to the right of the main nave.