Bone Chapel in Évora, Portugal

Évora is a town in Portugal that attracts tourists from all over the world for its Roman Temple, Medieval Wall, and Gothic churches. But, huge numbers of visitors flock to Évora to see the centuries-old remains of former residents.

Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos) Photo: Brent Petersen

Évora origin story

Celtic tribes lived around present-day Évora 5,000 years ago. The Romans took over in 57 BCE and built a wall which is still visible as well as the stunning Roman Temple which sits in the historic center of town.

Évora’s magnificent Roman temple (photo: Brent Petersen)

As Rome declined, the Visigoths took over and then the Moors who ruled for 450 years until 1165. After the reconquest, there was a building boom in Évora, especially during the Avis Dynasty of the 14th-16th century CE.

St. Francis Church (Igreja de São Francisco)

Originally, a 13th century Romanesque church sat on the site where the St. Francis Church currently stands. In 1475, a new Gothic-style church was constructed. St. Francis Church was completed about 75 years later.

The spectacular St. Francis Church (Igreja de São Francisco) Photo: Brent Petersen)

Inside is an imposing nave with soaring arches and twelve small chapels on the sides between the buttresses. The gold gilding and carved woodwork in the church are also quite good. But, the reason most people come here is the Chapel of Bones.

Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos)

The mysterious and macabre Chapel of Bones was built by the monks of the St. Francis Church in the 17th century. At that time, land was scarce and cemeteries took up a lot of land. So, the monks dug up people’s remains and used the bones to decorate the chapel. It’s said that they put these bones out in the open instead of stashing them away to provoke contemplation about the fate that awaits us all. In reality, the chapel served another purpose as the newly vacant land was used to build out the city.

Entering the chapel you are greeted with an inscription in Portuguese, translated as “We, the bones that are here await yours.”

It’s said that the bones of 5,000 souls are in this chapel. Along with all the skeletal remains is a poem reflecting on the meaning of life and death by Padre António da Ascenção and a bible verse on the ceiling concerning the same subject.

Some folks might be put off by the idea of human remains decorating a chapel. And if you’re squeamish, I’d say to skip it. But, the Capela dos Ossos is both an impressive work as well as thought provoking.

About the Author

Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink, including in-depth eating and drinking guides to Lisbon, PortoSintraMonsaraz, and Evora in Portugal. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.

Author: Brent