The Lost Chapel of Bones in Malta

By on April 25, 2017

Somewhere beneath the ruins of the Nibbia Chapel in Malta is an ossuary decorated in human bones exhumed from a nearby cemetery.
Nibbia Chapel of Bones in Valletta, Malta
Crypt beneath the Nibbia Chapel of Bones in Valletta, Malta

For nearly a hundred years a small church in Malta’s capital of Valletta served as a place of powerful religious devotion, as well as a macabre tourist destination. Known as the Chapel of Bones, the vaulted crypt beneath the church was elaborately decorated with human skulls and bones exhumed from a nearby cemetery in the mid-1800s. Bombs dropped on the city during the second World War, on February 14, 1941, left the chapel damaged. What remained was later demolished sometime in the 1970s. Only the sarcophagus of the chapel’s builder Fra Giorgia Nibbia, along with remnants of the foundation, were left standing.

The Nibbia Chapel was built in the year 1612. Nibbia, a member of the Knights of the Order of St. John (who controlled the island at that time) funded the construction of the Roman Catholic chapel beside a cemetery where deceased patients of the nearby Sacra Infermeria hospital were laid to rest. It was dedicated to the Madonna della Misericordia, or Our Lady of Mercy, and was originally called Taz-Zuntier, a Maltese word for “cemetery.” The altar had a Latin inscription that, according to the Times of Malta, “lamented the ephemerity of life and requested prayers for the dead.”

When Nibbia died in 1619, he was entombed in a stone sarcophagus within the chapel.

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The chapel was dismantled in 1730 to make room for expansion of the hospital. At that time, Nibbia’s tomb was opened, and his corpse was said to appear untouched by death. The church was rebuilt the following year in the Baroque style with architecture attributed to Romano Carapecchia. This new structure, as described by the Times of Malta, “consisted of a large portal panel having the main door set within two clustered sets of Doric pilasters on each side. The door’s architrave was adorned with a marble plaque at the centre and topped by a broken rounded pediment. A thin cornice separated the upper section which was made up of a central light arched window set between two smaller clusters of pilasters and running scrolls. Above the whole was a triangular pediment.”

In 1776, the decision was made to relocate the cemetery. The remains were exhumed and reinterred underground in a large ossuary beneath the chapel. Then, in 1852, hospital chaplain Rev. Sacco decided to use the bones as decoration, adorning the walls and ceiling of the crypt with elaborate shapes and patterns made entirely of human skeletal remains. He created intricate patterns with crossed long bones, scapulae were used for floral shapes, skulls lined the walls, and smaller bones were used as trim.

In the world, civilized and savage, there is not another such a gruesome and appalling spectacle.

In the 1914 book Six and One Abroad, author Sidney J. Thomas wrote about the Church of St. John in Valetta, where a relic said to be the mummified right hand of John the Baptist was kept (after Napoleon stole the diamond ring from its finger), before moving on to describe the city’s other macabre destination.

“But yet a more startling apartment in this remarkable edifice is a chapel whose walls and ceiling are lined with grinning human skulls,” Thomas wrote. “This gruesome decoration of bones is not disposed at random and in sparse bits here and there, but is arranged with artistic skill into all sorts of designs, shaped into full framed skeletons that leer at you with ghastly smiles, into the curves of arm bones and arches of clavicles and windows and wainscotting of ribs. In the world, civilized and savage, there is not another such a gruesome and appalling spectacle. It was a clever artist who assembled these, the relics of the sturdy Knights of Malta, into such extraordinary schemes of drapery and friezes and ornaments – here and arm bone finished off with finger joints and meeting another of the same kind and together holding a grinning skull as the keystone of an arch; yonder a row of columns with their tops decorated with skulls.”

A reaper in the Chapel of Bones

Though little remains of the Nibbia Chapel, the underground crypt is believed to still exist, and may one day be found.

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