A “memento mori” in San Bernardino alle Ossa
Italian best-selling author Giuseppe Genna has been familiar with San Bernardino alle Ossa since his childhood.
Inside the Milanese Baroque church, built in the second half of the 17th century, he was particularly impressed by the human bones – retrieved from an ancient nearby cemetery – used to decorate the niches, pillars, doors and frieze of a chapel.
“Three hundred meters from the Duomo, the walls of the church are not built in stone but rather in human skulls. A sacred ossuary, an ossified sacrarium. A baroque church, a double howitzer hidden in the shadow of the cathedral. The skulls watch you, walled dead.”
“My father made me go in before I was ten. They exuded moths and incense. Sentenced, died in prison, buried,
exhumed in the 17th century. Pressed together into a wall. To bring fright in a place of prayer. A temple to celebrate ‘memento mori’” (translated from G. Genna, “Dies irae”, Mondadori, Milan 2014).
Art critic Philippe Daverio used the same Latin expression in describing the 17th-century church: “It is perhaps the most vibrant trace of the Spanish presence in Milan at the time. Baroque architecture turns into Rococo as it branches out into an elegant octagon, finished off by a more ancient lateral chapel where mortal remains coming from the urban cemeteries connected to the Ca’ Granda – that is, the hospital – where used.”
“Skulls and tibias are elegantly laid out on display, smiling to eternity and generating a deeply moving ‘memento mori’. Now that your psyche has been prepared, you may approach the chamber where the mortal remains of the austere Disciplini monks are showcased, waiting for resurrection in their stern ossuary, while you watch them decay” (translated from Ph. Daverio, “La buona strada”, Rizzoli, Milan 2015).