jump to navigation

Religious Art and Human Indignity 4 April 2006


The marriage of art to the Catholic Church has always been an uneasy one. Whereas religion forms a framework for thought and action, art thrives in part by pushing boundaries. When the pope leans to pray in the Sistine Chapel, for example, he kneels before Michelangelo’s rendering of both biblical prophets and pagan sybils.

The Capuchin Cemetery of Rome is a similar exercise in pushing religious art to where religion itself will not go. But where Michelangelo overwhelmed his critics with the virtuosity of his work, the Capuchin Cemetery takes refuge in a twisted argument stemming from religion itself.

Dedicated to “Our Sister of Bodily Death,” it is the construction of an 18th century Capuchin monk who exhumed the bones of 4000 fellow Capuchins and Roman poor to pattern them into “Christian art.” Four small rooms constitute the cemetery, and the larger bones are stacked in piles along each wall. The smaller bones are set into designs: a necklace of joints, a cross made of fingers, concentric circles of pelvis bones, etc.

The most horrific is not the inhumanity of the separation of body parts and their subsequent use as interior design, but the skeletons of monks that have been kept whole. Wearing their brown Capuchin robes and trademark ropes as belts, these monks are set standing, lying, bent over and twisted – all with their skulls pushed into contortions of agony and pain. In front of them lie mounds in the ground representing graves, and never is the difference more stark between what is and what should be.

There was an indignity in my touristy gawking, an indignity in the monk who demanded donations for the upkeep of the cemetery, and a horrific disgrace in the idea that faith itself justified the desecration of posthumous dignity.



1. VARANGALI - 4 April 2006

As an aside, The Capuchin Order of Franciscan Friars, whose cemetery is discussed above, are at the origin of the word “cappuccino” – differing explanations point to their brown-colored robes resembling the color of the drink (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cappuccino) and the neat circles the monks shave in their heads resembling the foam in the drink (http://www.salon.com/travel/feature/1999/10/30/bones/index1.html).

2. The Turk - 5 April 2006

As they say : the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Some idiot thought it would please God.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: