Friday, May 14, 2010

To dust you shall return...

Be this too morbid a start to the weekend, but something has, while always disturbing me, engaged my curiosity about the art of the Capuchin Crypt on the Via Veneto in Rome, Italy. For those who may not know, the crypt lies beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.

Commissioned in 1626 by Pope Urban VII, the crypt began when the pope's brother, who was of the Capuchin order, ordered the remains of thousands of Capuchin friars exhumed from a nearby friary for use in the crypt. The friars continued to bury their dead among the others in the crypt.

I've never visited the crypt myself, but the morbid expression is an art all unto its own. The crypt houses the bones of some 4,000 friars and a few poor Roman peasants, who died between 1528 and 1870. Of the six rooms in the crypt, only one, the Mass Chapel, does not contain bones intricately displayed. Among the most striking, unsettling bone displays (something about real human bones prevents me from calling the displays, for lack of a better term, "pieces") are a skeleton as reaper with a scythe in his hand, and the three skeletal figures dressed in friars' robes. When the Marquis de Sade visited the crypt in 1775, he wrote "I have never seen anything more striking."

Having grown up in the Catholic Church, while this morbidity is certainly not the norm I do understand from where it comes. When I first saw these images, I immediately was taken back to the Ash Wednesday service, when a priest makes the sign of a cross on a Catholic's forehead with the ashes of palm branches, while saying the words "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return." I always wondered why that statement is made during the service, reiterating the corporeal aspects of our being, and making no mention of that which would, in theory, be that of us which would not return to dust. Or have originated as such.

The crypt is open to visitors from 9-noon and 3-6pm each day, but Thursday. A donation is required, and no photography is permitted. However, that did not stop this YouTube user from capturing a few moments on film within the crypt.

YouTube User: mlowerync

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