Lost Maltese Treasures: Valletta's Chapel of Bones was decorated with human skeletons
Valletta has always been a city of many wonders. One of these was the now-extant Nibbia Chapel - a small place of worship which was located near a cemetery where the deceased from the Sacra Infermeria hospital were buried. Its crypt was lavishly decorated with human bones, giving the underground burial space the moniker The Chapel of Bones. Although it looked like something out of a horror movie rather than a place of prayer, The Chapel of Bones became a huge attraction, until an air raid on Valentine’s Day 1941, at the height of World War II, ravaged the site.
Nibbia Chapel was originally built in 1619 near the Sacra Infermeria cemetery by Fra Giorgio Nibbia, a knight of the Order of St John. Dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy, it was intended as a place of prayer for the souls of the deceased patients of the hospital of the Order.
In 1730, the original chapel was dismantled to make way for a hospital extension and it was rebuilt in the Baroque style in 1731. The new building consisted of an octagonal structure with a dome, pilasters and pediments. More importantly, the chapel included a vaulted underground crypt which served as an ossuary.
When the Sacra Infermeria cemetery was cleared in 1776, its human remains were transferred to the ossuary, but it was only in 1852 that a certain Rev Sacco, then the chaplain of the hospital, had the grand idea of decorating the crypt with pretty patterns formed with human bones. The crypt had one altar on which was inscribed a Latin lament on the ephemerality of life, requesting prayers for the dead. This crypt became known as the Chapel of Bones.
Fun Fact: Rev Sacco was not unique in his inspiration. Chapels of Bones are, apparently, quite a thing in Roman Catholic culture. There are several other chapels decorated with human bones around the world.
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For example, the above 16th century Chapel of Bones is located in Évora, Portugal. It is lavishly decorated with bones, skulls and entire bodies hanging from the wall. Eeek!
Now check this one out and try not to have nightmares tonight. This Roman Catholic chapel in Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic is known as the Sedlec Ossuary ('Kostnice' in Czech). Located in the crypt of the Cemetery Church of All Saints, it is said to contain the bones of around 40,000 to 70,000 people!
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So the Maltese project not only went ahead but gained much popularity. Even Malta’s very own Saint George Preca used the Nibbia Chapel of Bones to speak about Christian eschatology - the part of theology concerned with death, judgement and the soul's final destination. Indeed, November, the month of the dead, sees several pilgrimages to this chapel.
The Ruins of Nibbia Chapel - Frank Vincentz - Creative Commons and Wikimedia
But, as mentioned above, Nibbia Chapel was severely damaged by aerial bombardment during World War II and its ruins were demolished in the late 1970s. Today, the foundations of the site are located in the parking lot of Evans Building near St Elmo in Valletta, but the Chapel of Bones is no more.
Or so they say. It is believed, by some, to have survived the bombing, with the crypt still boasting its macabre decoration and still containing the sarcophagus with the remains of the Italian knight Fra Nibbia (1555-1619). Yet, no one has rediscovered it yet. Perhaps, some day, they will.