Faro’s Igreja do Carmo

In the center of Faro, amidst the apartment buildings and government offices and local restaurants, there is an old church with a somewhat ratty exterior, in serious need of a paint job.

church exterior

(Note the white stork roosting on the bell tower.)

Inside this church is an altar of breathtaking opulence.

church interior

Everything is plated with gold, most likely brought from one of the colonies during Portugal’s era of ascendancy. Just after lunch on a workday afternoon, a curious explorer is likely to find no one else inside, other than the ladies who sell tickets.

The tickets are not for the church itself. As rich and interesting as it is, this is not the main attraction of the Igreja do Carmo. The real attraction is this:

skull

(continued after the jump)

Through a side hall of the church, into a courtyard, and around the back side is the entrance to a small chapel made of bones. Unlike the more famous Capela dos Ossos of Évora, the chapel in Faro is not made of general bones from a city graveyard. These are the bones of the monks who lived and served here.

wall of bones

Their femurs and tibias are stacked into supporting rows, punctuated at regular intervals by their skulls. The bones form not just the four walls of the chapel, but also its roof.

roof pattern

As you can see, not all of the skulls have stayed put. There are holes here and there. I confess my imagination did go a bit wild imagining this skull popping out of the ceiling, while the chapel was crowded with a busload of tourists.

altar

It’s a fascinating place, this tiny room made of bones. And if you are fortunate enough to be there when no one else is around, it’s a place that inspires contemplation. The closest we Americans get to being faced with our mortality is a graveyard, which has none of the immediacy of a wall of bones. When you stand in this chapel, you cannot help but think that inside your body are the same bones that adorn these walls, and when you die, you will eventually look no different than what you see here.

looking upwards

Everyone will have their own reaction to the stark lesson these bones have to teach. My thought, when I reach out to touch a smooth skull, is that we all have limited time here — so we should make the most of it. There is a difference between living, and being alive. Looking at a wall of death, I am grateful for my own life and what I’ve packed into it so far. And I am motivated to keep exploring, keep learning, keep taking chances on the unknown or unfamiliar…because that is what being alive means to me.

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About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in culture, Portugal. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Faro’s Igreja do Carmo

  1. Ana_ñ says:

    Great! A brilliant conclusion after a gothic path. I fully subscribe your last sentence as I feel exactly the same way.

    (Although I have a few technical questions, I’m not going to comment on the bone-based architecture)

  2. Erik says:

    OT. Have a look, you’ll love it.
    http://www.solarsystemscope.com/

  3. Alma says:

    Grymt!
    That’s a Swedish adjective which means both cruel and (as a transfered, modern meaning) cool. It’s the most appropriate one-word description I can find for this, though I have to say your analysis about the fleetingness of life is a bit more eloquent…
    When I visit (I keep saying ‘when’), we’ll go there, right?

  4. M. says:

    Yes, definitely places like this make impression and force to contemplate how fragile life is.
    There are two chapels of this kind in my neigborhood
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skull_Chapel_in_Czermna
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sedlec_Ossuary

    • Ana_ñ says:

      Jesus! M, I was impressed with the arrangement of two femurs crossed over one skull in the ceiling of Czermna’s chapel, but it can’t compare with the chandelier: skulls atop petals of iliac bones… morbid creativity, to say the least!

    • oregon expat says:

      Wow! The chandelier, the garlands, and the coat of arms are something else. As Ana_ñ said, very creative. It does make one consider the line between Christianity and paganism…which can be a lot thinner than some would prefer to believe.

      • M. says:

        Oh, no wonder the line is thin, when many pagan customs were simply adapted into Christianity. Catholic Church does it even now, for example 1st May is secular holiday, May Day. But not anymore. It will be day of Pope John Paul II beatification from now on.

        • oregon expat says:

          Really? I didn’t know that. Yet another saint’s holiday…and I won’t even get into how ridiculous it is to make a saint out of a man who presided over the institutionalized rape and molestation of children across the globe. Didn’t beatitude used to take a lot longer? At least long enough for the memories of the less savory aspects of the individual’s life to fade into history?

      • Ana_ñ says:

        I think that the fast beatification of the previous Pope tried to sanction/ratify the current Pope’s actions as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (former Inquisition) under John Paul II pontificate. Don’t forget that sex abuse cases are under its competency and Ratzinger was its highest authority. Now, on 1st May, instead of the International Labor Day it will be the day of Pope John Paul II beatification. I guess it might be a controversial holiday in Poland, but I think it should be left as May Day, as M. called it, a celebration open to everyone.

        • oregon expat says:

          Quite true about Ratzinger’s involvement, but if John Paul’s only defense was “I didn’t know, somebody else took care of that,” then he was admitting incompetence as a pope.

          I agree completely about May Day remaining a secular holiday accessible to all. And I suspect that in most countries, it will stay that way.

      • Ana_ñ says:

        Roman Catholic Church is far from democracy and rule of low. What I wanted to say is that they are exonerating both popes at the same time; beatification cleans past actions. There is not such a thing as “incompetence as a pope”.

        1st May is a secular holiday in Spain, and I hope it does not change. But I understand that it might be a special case in Poland, John Paul being Polish and Labor Day possibly associated with communist regime.

      • M. says:

        I am not expert here, but yes, normally beatification can start no sooner than 5 years after death of a person. But this case was, of course, special. It sounds really ridiculous but in short all you have to do to make somebody saint is to prove that this person was the source of miracles. So the ugly politics of JPII doesn’t matter as long as there are proved miracles.
        Ana_ñ said it all so nicely. Oh, there is even dogma about Papal infallibility.

        Don’t get me wrong – 1st May will be still national, secular holiday in Poland, officially. But from now on the Church will have the counterpoise, the reason to make a big fuss and celebration that day. After some years initial reason of this holiday – International Labor Day, may be displaced in Roman Catholic countries by this new celebration. Well, most likely it won’t work this way, but this exact mechanism was used a lot in the past with, well, rather rewarding effects.

      • Ana_ñ says:

        Sorry for being here again. This time I had a laugh over one of my mistakes: “rule of LOW”; yes, that suits well in this case. 🙂
        And I agree with M. about the “rewarding effects” obtained with such practices. The date was well chosen.

  5. JJ says:

    Wow! What a way to be permanently a part of the architecture.

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