My friend Grey just got back from a trip to Italy wherein he had the opportunity to visit Otranto Ossuary. I am envious! ^_^ This is one of the ossuaries I’d like to visit myself some day. He was kind enough to take several photos for me, which I’m sharing here. The bones are behind glass, so he said it was difficult to get a decent shot but here are the photos he sent me. (All photos by Grey Zane).
I like this one the best, because it gives you a sense of the impact of the bones themselves, flanking the high altar.
Here is a close up of the skulls.
And here another.
Paul Koudounaris, in his wonderful book The Empire of Death, notes that this was the first Italian ossuary to house the remains of the battle dead. In 1480, Otranto was sacked by the Turks and priests were tortured and, along with locals, massacred.(1) In 1500, remains, upwards of 900 skulls and other bits were disinterred and moved to the ossuary, where they remain to this day. In the eighteenth century, they were canonized en masse.
These are powerful places, places that remind us the dead are always near; places that remind us of the rightness of veneration.
- See Koudounaris, Paul, The Empire of Death, London, UK: Thames and Hudson, 2011, p. 157.
Speaking of books, I also found this book mesmerizing. It’s a lyrical, at times confessional read written by the late Denise Inge. I was intensely moved by this woman’s words. I initially picked up the book because I am working on a book on pilgrimage and I wanted to read accounts of people who had made a similar journey to the one I took in July. There was almost nothing, save this book, available. I started reading it because, just as I did, she made a personal pilgrimage to four ossuaries. The first two stops on her journey, were the first two on mine: Czermna and Sedlec. In her case, she was journeying to face the fear of her own mortality summoned forth when she discovered that she lived in a parish house that held an ossuary in its basement (I would be in absolute heaven were I so fortunate as to be gifted with care of an ossuary!).
While she and I may have stepped in the same places, submitted ourselves to experience of the same skulls and bones, our responses were markedly different. She wrestled with terror and I was brought to my knees by sublimity; at the same time her language is thoughtful and introspective and it made me more thoughtful and introspective about my pilgrimage too. I wish I could have had the opportunity to speak with her about her pilgrimage and mine and all the places we might have met in the middle. There is a simplicity in bone after all that reflects back everything we do not wish to allow ourselves to see. There is a profound truth in the stark realities of bone. She talks of the bare beauty of bone and my heart sings.
“The dead are not far from us, they cling in some strange way to what is most still and deep within us.” – W.B. Yeats