Italy
/
Milan
Story
Early Modern

An ossuary chapel in the centre of Milan

San Bernardino alle Ossa, a place with strong themes of death
Ptolemy
17 May, 2022

Once upon a time, in the 13th century CE, outside the walls of Milan beyond today’s Via Durini and Via Larga, there was a forested area used for cultivation and hunting by the Archbishop and his honoured guests.

In 1145 CE, not far from the Basilica of Santo Stefano Maggiore, a hospital was built at the behest of a Milanese citizen called Gotifredo da Busserò. Near this hospital, a cemetery was later created to handle the hospital's casualties. However, as the years went by, the small cemetery became insufficient. It was erected a chamber attached to the nearby Basilica of Santo Stefano intended to exhale bones from the cemetery and create more space for burial. The ossuary was thus established and dedicated to the patron St Bernardine of Siena.

In 1642 CE, the bell tower of the adjacent Basilica of Santo Stefano collapsed and fell on the ossuary. The latter was rebuilt, and over the years, as more pilgrims and believers came to visit such a unique place, the brotherhood of the ossuary, known as the “Disciplini”, commissioned the construction of today’s Church of St Bernardino in 1750.

The “Disciplinati”, or Disciplini, in the late Middle Ages, were laypeople gathered in congregations and confraternities who, concerned for the salvation of their souls, submitted themselves to a life of prayer and penance among which they practised self-flagellation. With this latter custom, they also sought to repeat and experience the same sufferings Christ underwent in his passion. Suffering as such was also represented by macabre paintings or symbols depicting death.

"Macabre Dance" fresco (by Paolo da Reggio CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Dance of the Death of the Disciplini Oratory, Clusone, Province of Bergamo, Region of Lombardy, Italy (by Zairon CC BY-SA 4.0 via WikiCommons)

The ossuary was embellished and decorated with paintings and statues during the Spanish domination of Milan. Today the chapel boasts numerous bones arranged in niches, and the quite macabre decorative motifs blend in uniquely with Rococo styles.

Some sources suggest that while on one side, the bones belonged to monks and 'benevolent' souls, on the other, they belonged to people who suffered a violent death through decapitation carried out as a punishment for theft and violent acts.

Interior of the chapel
Interior of the chapel

Before leaving, one can admire on the ceiling 'The Triumph of Souls in a Flight of Angels' by Sebastiano Ricci (1695). The fresco stands as a farewell that accompanies the afterlife journey of the deceased.

Moreover, since 1768 CE, In the chapel to the right of the single nave, there has been a Baroque marble altar with an altarpiece depicting 'Saint Mary Magdalene". In the same chapel is the family tomb of some descendants, in the maternal line, of Christopher Columbus' descendants. As a dedication on the side frames of the altar, visible the family’s crests and the engraving of the motto '"Colon gave the new world to Castile and Leon"'.

Interior view of the ossuary (G.dallorto, CC BY-SA 2.5, IT, via Wikimedia Commons)
Interior view of the ossuary (G.dallorto, CC BY-SA 2.5, IT, via Wikimedia Commons)

Today the building represents a fascinating example of ossuary right in the city centre of Milan, hidden from crowds of unaware tourists.


Related stories

See all »