Church of Human Skulls – San Bernardino alle Ossa

I had the morbid privilege today of visiting and photographing San Bernardino alle Ossa in San Babila, Milan. The church has a fascinating story. If you’re skirmish, get out of this post NOW! 🙂

However, if you’ve ever visited the catacombs in Paris, you’ll know what it feels like to visit such a place.

Overflowing graveyards

Back in the 13th century, a nearby graveyard was full. Apparently too many people were dying (probably of the bubonic plague, who knows) and there was nowhere to put the corpses. Officials decided to dig up old graves and pile them high in a small chamber.

Eventually in the 18th century, a church was built, the San Bernardino, adjacent to the chamber.

View from the outside

From the outside, by Italian standards, there’s nothing particularly special about the church. If it were in North America, it would probably be a UNESCO World Heritage site but in Italy…blah. But once you’re inside…

San Bernardino alle Ossa-16
San Bernardino alle Ossa

Inside the church

I took advantage that a soft light was hitting exactly on Jesus on the cross. Also, an altar with an open bible.

These would make for great book covers, in my opinion. Notice how I left enough copy space to add text.

Inside the Bone Chapel

Now, the chamber was super dark and I was having trouble getting clean shots. I used some of Steve Heap’s advice on How to Take Great Images in Dark Buildings tutorial, which certainly helped, especially in post-processing.

Inside the bone chapel (also known as the “ossuary), it’s dark, cramped and a bit scary.  At one point, I was completely alone to “appreciate” the beauty of death.

The evocative crypt of San Bernardino alle Ossa, Milan, Italy
I would have hated to be the person responsible to place the skulls in a pattern to form a cross, even if it’s “making art”

Beautiful ceiling art (frescos)

The evocative crypt of San Bernardino alle Ossa, Milan, Italy
Colorful Frescos by Sebastiano Ricci

Skulls of the beheaded criminals

Tucked away on one corner, behind a cage, is a section of skulls which belonged to criminals who were beheaded.

The evocative crypt of San Bernardino alle Ossa, Milan, Italy

The evocative crypt of San Bernardino alle Ossa, Milan, Italy
All corners covered in skulls & bones

Get me the hell out of here!

Christmas shopping season in the historic centre of Milan, Lomba
After a short while I had to get some fresh air – Christmas shopping on a beautiful late autumn day!

Hope you enjoyed this morbid experience. If you’re ever in Milan, here’s the details on finding this fascinating out-of-the-beaten-path gem, a 5 minute walk from the Duomo Cathedral:

 Via Verziere, 2, 20122 Milano MI

Until next time!


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