Wall decorations created from human skulls and vertebrae, doorframes embedded with femurs and ulnae ... this brings to mind the set of a horror film … or the Addams family. It is actually one of the strangest, and most morbidly fascinating, religious sites in Milano: the Ossuary of the Church of San Bernardino alle Ossa (literally St. Bernardine at the Bones - quite an appropriate name…). The church is very close to Duomo so if you are in the mood for something truly unforgettable take a chance and call in.
The ossuary chapel can be reached through a narrow corridor immediately to the right of the church entrance, a small square room furnished simply with an altar and a niche depicting a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, kneeling next to the dead Jesus.
Human skulls and bones, placed in niches and on the ledges, pillars and doors, cover the walls of the chapel almost entirely. Skeletons are used for wall decoration as well. It is presumed the exhumed bones are those of the deceased from the ex-Brolo leper hospital and the suppressed seventeenth-century cemeteries. The skulls enclosed in the cases above the entrance door are those of offenders condemned to death by beheading.
The vault is frescoed by Sebastiano Ricci - a 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. Will you feel brave enough to visit the church on that day?
If you prefer to give the macabre dance scenario a miss and opt instead for the surroundings, a good idea is a walk around the imposing historic cloisters of the nearby Università Statale, creating 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 food options, with street food as a must, giving visitors a chance to savour the city through its food traditions.
In 1728 John V, King of Portugal 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 are buried in the main church, as the family tomb lies in the chapel to the right of the single nave.