I had hoped to write about the Moving Hearts Project in London as it happened, but it turns out I need recollection time to do that sort of thing, and that sort of time has been in short supply. Other kinds of blogging, including brief notes about my reading and perhaps a little translation, don’t have quite the same needs.
Today we visited the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) attached to the Church of São Francisco in Evora, Portugal. The chapel was built in the 17th century, with walls and pillars covered with thousands of human bones, including skulls. It’s beautiful in an inner-city tattoo kind of way, but very creepy, especially when you realise that the bones were dug up from cemeteries connected to the church. The makers, however unthinkingly disrespectful to the graves they robbed, had pious intentions. The chapel is meant as an over-the-top memento mori.
A poem by Padre António da Ascenção Teles, a local parish priest in the mid 19th century, is displayed in the chapel to help us tourists understand the pious intent. (I’ve also included it, in Portuguese, at the end of this post.) It’s a sonnet, so how could I resist having a bash at a version (helped of course, since I don’t speak or read Portuguese, by the literal, non-rhyming English version also on display in the chapel, which you can see here). My title is the message carved in the stone over the entrance to the chapel.
Nos ossos qui aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos / We bones who are here are waiting for yours Where are you rushing to, sightseer? Stop now. Ignore the guidebook's patter. Nothing that's in there can matter more than what you see right here. Billions have gone, no longer breathing, and you'll end pretty much the same. Ignore this? That would be a shame. For every life, death is a key thing. Shopping, selfies, news with noddies, tweets of Trump and deeds of Dutton: who remembers we're all bodies? Just look. These walls, though they're bizarre, can reset your attention button. Stop. Remember what you are.
The original, by Fr. António da Ascenção Teles:
Aonde vais, caminhante, acelerado? Pára...não prossigas mais avante; Negócio, não tens mais importante, Do que este, à tua vista apresentado. Recorda quantos desta vida têm passado, Reflecte em que terás fim semelhante, Que para meditar causa é bastante Terem todos mais nisto parado. Pondera, que influido d'essa sorte, Entre negociações do mundo tantas, Tão pouco consideras na morte; Porém, se os olhos aqui levantas, Pára ... porque em negócio deste porte, Quanto mais tu parares, mais adiantas.
Gosh. Can’t quite see anyone getting away with something similar nowadays…
Yes, Lisa, that’s pretty much my first thought! A friend has challenged my assumption that this was done thoughtlessly, saying that the chapel may have been built as a community thing. Maybe, but it seems much more likely to me that the friars just assumed that the community would support such a pious undertaking.
Is it possible that there were vestiges of an old religion that had a similar sort of rite? Like those animist places in Indonesia where they put the skeletons on display?
Maybe, but this feels very different from that, even from the 4th century catacombs we visited in Malta, where people were buried en masse, and walked on by later visitors.