Visit Portugal’s ghoulish Chapel of Bones in the Alentejo to find out if it is a place of sheer terror or simple meditation.
“If you are uncomfortable with death, then please stay outside the Chapel of Bones”. Our Portuguese guide, María always starts with this proviso when we visit Portugal’s most alternative and disturbing tourist site beyond the grave.
PORTUGAL’S INTERESTING BONE CHAPELS
The Chapel of Bones is based in the historic Alentejan town of Évora ( 2 hours east of Lisbon). The surrounding tranquil countryside of vineyards and cork forests easily disguise a turbulent and bloody past of Visigoth, Moorish and Reconquest battles. A potpourri of historical remains, it is on the UNESCO heritage list due to its most unique nature and its living museum status with its Roman remains, including an astonishing 2nd Century Roman temple dedicated to Caesar.
Recall how many have passed from this world,
Reflect on your similar end
EVORA’S CAPELA DOS OSSOS, TERRITORY OF THE DEAD
One of the quirkier places to visit in Portugal is the church “Igreja de Sao Francisco” which is a very good example of Manueline décor with its sturdy rope designs, beautiful stain glass and which has seen extensive cleaning in the last 5 years so that it glows in the afternoon sun. However, it is the side door beside the tall Manueline portico, which opens to a totally different world than the sedate church glowing in the sun holds. This is the territory of the dead.
Èvora’s Chapel of Mortality
To drive the point home, take note of the thought provoking entry inscription over the door which reads, “We bones that are here, await yours” (Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos).
The Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos) is a small church (almost 19 meters by 11 meters) dedicated to death and decorated with it. Completed in the 17th century by Franciscan monks who found a novel solution faced with the problem of relocating the bones when the land and cemeteries around town were filled to overflowing. Ossuaries (from the Latin word for bone – os / bones – plural ossa) were not an uncommon thing .
PORTUGAL’S FAMOUS OSSARIES – MACABRE OR MEANINGFUL MESSAGES
They also wanted to make a statement about values. Taking into consideration the poor, who lived, toiled and died outside the city gates in abject poverty, terrible affliction and hardship, they wished to make a social comment on the basic mortality we all face and the lack of economic distinction, once we reach that stage.
As you wander down the main transept, you see two full skeletons (a man and child) also appear, chained to the wall (now encased in glass) who are made to spend eternity unburied and acting as a message to us all.
Designed with some humour and in reality, many humeruses, columns are made of carefully placed bones with grinning skulls lining them. There are more than 5000 bodies here, stacked neatly into piles lining the walls and cemented onto the pillars and lintels.
However, don’t forget, you still are alive, reflect on those who have gone before, you do have a second chance to repent and change. This is even made more poignant, as behind the chapel is a school and on many visits we have made there, the back drop of sound has been very happy children’s voices in the playground.
IN EVORA’S CHAPEL OF BONES, REFLECT ON YOUR MORTALITY
As the poem, written by the parish priest, António da Ascenção Teles, in the chapel says
If by chance you glance at this place,
Stop … for the sake of your journey,
The more you pause, the more you will progress.
ARE THERE OTHER BONE CHAPELS IN PORTUGAL?
There are many other ossuaries (at least 6) to visit in Portugal and you can hit two of these on our bike tours there.
Have a guided tour here in Evora of its Capela dos Ossos on our Amazing Alentejo bike trip where we stay in Évora for 2 days enjoying its unique atmosphere.
Finish our Blue Coasts self guided bike trip from Lisbon to Lagos, and enjoy a visit to Lagos’ bone chapel (15th century Church of St. Sebastian /Igreja de Sao Sebastiao). If it isn’t open upon arrival, as many of these chapels do have different hours, there is also another one in the Algarve in nearby Faro. Although not as famous as the Évora chapel, Faro’s Baroque Church, the Igreja do Carmo and its Capela dos Ossos does include the remains of 1000 people to make a similar point.
If planning a beach vacation after your Portuguese bike tour on the Algarve, it isn’t all beaches and beer, take a trip to the little village of Alcantarilha, where there is another bone chapel.
They may be odd places to visit on your trip to Portugal but you sure won’t forget them very soon.