Thursday, July 2, 2009

Skull Cathedral, Otranto, Italy

I just stumbled upon a story about the "Skull Cathedral of Otranto," which is located in the quaint sea-side town of Otranto, Italy and houses and displays the skeletons--arranged with great care and a decorative eye--of 800 Catholic martyrs in glass-fronted cases behind the altar. A local tourist website tells the story of the Cathedral's unusual interior decoration thusly: in 1480, the city is under attack by the Turks; the "Turkish commander summons 800 inhabitants, all of the able-bodied men, and forces them to choose between the Muslim faith and death. All 800 [martyrs] are beheaded on the hill of Minerva, and their skulls are preserved in the cathedral." (source here.)

And does the name Otranto ring a bell? It did for me, too. I find myself wondering if this cathedral and the grisly events which it memorializes comprised any (if not most!) of the inspiration for Horace Walpole's 1764 famous Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto.

The images above are drawn from a story about the cathedral found on the Environmental Graffiti website; you can see this original post here. For more on bones used as decorative material in churches, see Curious Expedition's wonderful story on the truly epic Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic by clicking here.


Anonymous said...



Owen said...

Fascinating... there was an article in a recent National Geographic about mummies preserved in churches in Sicily with some startling photographs... And the catacombs of Paris have bones arranged artistically too, sort of like these...

Anonymous said...


LilGreenMan said...

We have a similar Chappel in Portugal. It's called "Capela dos Ossos" (Bone's Chappel) and you can find some of it's history here :
and here :

If you want to do some extended research just google "Capela dos Ossos".

There are some other Bone's Chappels in Portugal, but this is the most famous.

Anonymous said...

this is a little late.
but i actually just came back from otranto. its about an hour from my family's home in italy. and the novel you speak of was in fact inspired by the castle of otranto. very lovely town!

Anonymous said...

Hay otra muy similar en la iglesia de un pueblo en Valladolid que se llama Wamba. Merece la pena visitar el pueblo con una iglesia romanica y varios arcos mozarabes junto al osario.Está a menos de diez kilometros de Valladolid.