Creepy or cool? Milan’s ‘bone church’ is lined with human skulls

If you think all Italian churches are more or less the same, you’re about to be proven wrong. Standing in the shadows of the Duomo sits a place of worship that has been described as both creepy and cool. Why? Because San Bernardino alle Ossa (the bone church) is adorned with human skulls. Yes, real ones.

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It sounds like a scene from a horror movie…vulnerable girl runs into a church seeking refuge from her killer – but instead of a priest, she finds human remains. But despite the initial thoughts that come to mind, the church is actually a lot less morbid than it may seem (although not everyone shares that sentiment).

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At this point, you’re probably wondering why such a place exists. It’s a valid question, and one that dates back to the year 1210. It all started when a nearby hospital built for leprosy patients ran out of space. An adjacent cemetery held the corpses of those who passed away…until it couldn’t anymore.

Needing more space for the bodies, the ossuary was built. In 1269, the ossuary had the church built onto it. And so it all became one. A crypt and a church, all within the same walls. But it wasn’t until 1642, when a bell tower collapsed on San Bernardino, that the skulls became “decorations” for the ossuary walls.

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It is believed that the skulls enclosed in boxes above the front door are those of executed prisoners.

There are, of course, more elaborate legends surrounding the bone church – including a little girl who apparently comes back to life every Halloween and enjoys a dance with her dead roommates.

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If you think the church sounds just a little too weird to be enjoyed, you don’t share the beliefs of King John V of Portugal, who was so enamored with it in 1738 that he built an identical one in Evora, near Lisbon.

However, those who share the same fascination as the king should note that the church looks just like any other upon first glance. It’s only once you turn to the right and follow signs to the ossuary that you’ll see the piles of bones.

After you’ve sat amongst the skulls of souls long departed, be sure to visit the church next door, Santo Stephano, for a more traditional cathedral visit.

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Address: Via Verziere, 2

Lynsey Free

Lynsey Free is founder and editor of Postcards from Milan. As a freelance journalist and copywriter, her work has been published on RT.com, RT television, Sky News, News Corp sites, and MyFox channels. She is based in Milan, Italy.

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