(AMERICA MAGAZINE) -- Two skulls interrupted my walk in Rome. Three times larger than their natural size, with hollow eyes and missing teeth, they were carved in stone on the facade of a building. Passersby stared, and I waited in a group of them to take the same picture everybody took: the grey skulls framing the door, a flying hourglass above their heads. This was the oratory of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte: Holy Mary of Prayer and Death. Other Catholic churches were named for saints, places or people, but this one was named for its purpose, hinted at by the symbols looming above us.
During the day people occasionally tried the front door, but it was locked. But in the evenings, a small side door was open infrequently, at unpublished hours. I walked past it every night until I found it open. Near the entrance was a plaque, an engraving of a skeleton with feathered wings unfurling a banner: hodie mihi, cras tibi. “Today me, tomorrow you.” I entered unescorted into a small room at the bottom of the stairs. Here, I was surrounded by shelves and altars made of bones.
Human bones are not particularly difficult to see in Rome. The famous Capuchin crypt is a short drive away, and it costs less than 10 euros to enter. It is famously macabre; and as in the Paris catacombs, you walk through in a line with other tourists. Famous visitors have included Nathaniel Hawthorn, Mark Twain and, naturally, the Marquis de Sade. In room after room you can see the bones of 3,700 friars worked into architectural niches of thighs and floral arrangements of pelvises.
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