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The Capuchin Crypt: Pilgrimage and Memento Mori

During a visit to Rome, in addition to visiting popular tourist attractions, one has the opportunity to explore the city's more unconventional elements. Among these, the Crypt of the Capuchin Friars, situated beneath the 17th-century church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in the historic centre of Rome, is a particularly intriguing destination that raises profound existential questions for contemplation. This article aspires to unveil the most significant pilgrimage themes characterising the Capuchin Crypt. It will further examine the potential psychological impact that it may have on tourists, serving as a catalyst for emotional and spiritual revitalisation.

Figure 1: A Franciscan Friar (Rembrandt, 1655)

The Capuchin Crypt

The display of the skeletal remains of 3,700 bodies, believed to be belonging to Capuchin friars buried by their order between 1500 and 1870, serves as a silent reminder of the swift passage of life on Earth and our own mortality. In comparison to its French counterpart, the infamous Paris catacombs serve as a storage of human remains, whereas the Capuchin Crypt bluntly displays them in an ornate, artistic and repulsive manner. The staging of everything is executed with a high degree of intricacy and delicacy. In fact, one could argue that it represents an artistic vision that redefines the conventional notion of "interior design."

The first written mention of the crypt is made by French writer Marquis de Sade who said that he had never seen anything more striking. He considered the memento mori (Latin for "remember that you must die"), which is explicitly expressed through the inscription with which the visitor is greeted ("what you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be"), a monument of funerary art (Steintrager, 2020). However, American authors Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne were the ones who drew more attention to the crypt by describing the grotesque display of human skeletons. Nathaniel Hawthorne visited and felt the oppressive weight of the display. In his novel, called The Marble Fun, he wrote “not here, can we feel ourselves immortal” (Hawthorne, 1860/1990, p. 325), most likely influenced by the greeting sign within the crypt. During the same period, Mark Twain mentioned his experience in the chapel in Chapter XXVII of his book The Innocents Abroad:

"the reflection that he must someday be taken apart like an engine or a clock and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes, did not distress this monk in the least. I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present" (Twain, 1869/ 2011, p. 217).

Figure 2: Roma-Cimitero dei cappuccini (Richter, late 19th century)

Key Concepts Related to the Crypt’s Formulation

Despite the spiritual connotations the Capuchin Crypt entails, the average contemporary tourist appears to be challenged in grasping its underlying meanings, being solely carried away by the macabre display of death and the terror its sight awakens. Without proper guidance even Roman Catholic visitors approach the place in a superficial manner; they would not manage to delve into its spiritual essence and decode the religious intentions of the monks. People who choose to avoid such grim sites usually have a more delicate disposition and exhibit fearfulness. Those from secular or religious backgrounds other than the Roman Catholic Church may also prevent the gruesome scene (Vaiour, 2004).

In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the profound significance underlying the unsettling display, it is crucial to analyse the concepts that define it. Firstly, the notion of memento mori, explicitly expressed through the greeting inscription, serves as an artistic and symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death, a central tenet of the monks' ideology. Despite the unsettling appearance of death, this illusion is not intended to evoke fear in the Christian context (Vaiour, 2004). The thought of ephemerality was utilised in Christianity, whose strong emphasis on divine judgment, heaven, hell, and the salvation of the soul brought death to the forefront of consciousness. In the Christian context, the memento mori acquires a moralising purpose, quite opposed to the nunc est bibendum (now is the time to drink) theme of classical antiquity (Vaiour, 2004). To a Christian, the prospect of death serves to emphasise the emptiness and fleetingness of mundane pleasures, and thus also invites one to focus their thoughts on the prospect of the afterlife. To expand upon this message, the monks decorated the six rooms of the crypt in different manners. The two most notable rooms include the Crypt of Resurrection and the Crypt of the Three Skeletons. The latter includes a minuscule skeletal figure, which represents death, holding a scythe in one hand, and scales to judge the soul in the other.

Figure 3: Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (Claesz, 1628)

In addition, the most noticeable thing as one descends into the eerie Capuchin Crypt is the decorative skulls, along with the decaying remains of around 4,000 Capuchin monks. The symbolic dimension of the skull, as well as analysis of the effect its sight has on the human psyche, is key in grasping the sense of the crypt. More specifically, the monks aspired to resonate a religious compelling message by attaching symbolic meaning to the human skull. For centuries, depictions of skulls signified either warnings of lethal threats or moralistic reminders of the transience of life and the vanity of earthly pleasures (Kearl, 2015). Skull imagery also appears to have a greater visual appeal in comparison to other bones of the human skeleton. Although a skull is obviously dead, some can even seem to look sad due to a downward-facing slope on the ends of the eye sockets, or a skull with the lower jaw intact may also appear to be grinning or laughing due to the exposed teeth. As such, human skulls often have a greater visual appeal than the other bones of the human skeleton and fascinate even as they repel (Kearl, 2015), offering a reassuring explanation for the visitors’ simultaneous sensations of intrigue and aversion.

Figure 4: Allegory of Transience (Pereda, 1640)

The Psychological Effect on Tourists

Although pilgrimage may not be a common denominator among tourists, it becomes hard to deny that the prime motive for visitation of this particular site for the majority of the contemporary tourist audience is the crypt’s existential philosophy. Studies of the relationship between existential authenticity and tourism have postulated that tourism offers a temporary release from the inauthenticity of everyday life (Kim & Jamal, 2007). As it has been further argued by Dr. Lorraine Brown (2013), a professor of Tourism and Hospitality at Bournemouth University, tourism has the potential to act not simply as a substitute but as a catalyst for existential authenticity, prompting the adoption of an authentic attitude by its practitioners. As stated by Jilian Rickly, a professor of Geography in the Division of Marketing at the University of Nottingham, existential authenticity refers to a state of being rather than an essentialist, objective quality (Rickly-Boyd, 2013). As a result, this concept has been linked to the individuals’ emotions, sensations, relationships, and sense of self.

Figure 5: Greeting inscription in the Capuchin Crypt (Pollyakallen, 2013)

With this strain of thinking, one can claim that the Capuchin Crypt, with its awe-inspiring ambience, could act as a breeding ground for a transcendental experience that offers the individual the opportunity for a spiritual and emotional transformation. In addition, the memento mori discipline that characterises the crypt has been an essential part of ascetic disciplines as a means of perfecting the character by cultivating detachment and other virtues, and by turning the attention towards the immortality of the soul and the afterlife (Belhassen et al., 2008). Therefore, as argued by Dr. Melanie Kay Smith (2017), an associate professor in Tourism and Management and researcher from Budapest Metropolitan University, it would not be exaggerated to consider the crypt as a potential romanticised product for psychological rejuvenation under the umbrella of therapy tourism, since its macabre nature offers a reflective space by tapping into issues of existential angst. In this sense, it triggers tourists to consider life choices and prompt change, if necessary, upon their return home (Smith, 2017).


With its striking and unconventional embellishments, the heritage site of the Capuchin Crypt has become an epitome of existentialism, offering an opportunity for deep introspection and contemplation of afterlife ideas. Pilgrimages in spiritual locations have long been considered a way of finding spiritual solace and a chance to step back from the chaos and vanities of everyday life. In this way, visitors can benefit from an inevitable reflection upon their personal journey through life and possibly even outline a new spiritual focus or pathway.

Bibliographical references

Belhassen, Y., Caton, K., & Stewart, W.P. (2008). The search for authenticity in the pilgrim

Experience. Annals of Tourism Research, 35(3), pp. 668–689.

Brown, L. (2013). Tourism: A catalyst for existential authenticity. Annals of Tourism Research, 40, pp. 176–190.

Hawthorne, N. (1990). The marble faun: Or, the romance of Monte Beni. Penguin Classics.

Kearl, M.C. (2015). The proliferation of skulls in popular culture: A case study of how the traditional symbol of mortality was rendered meaningless. Mortality, 20(1), pp. 1-18.

DOI: 10.1080/13576275.2014.961004

Kim, H. & Jamal, T. (2007). Touristic quest for existential authenticity. Annals of

Tourism Research, 34(1), pp. 181–201.

Rickly-Boyd, J.M. (2013). Existential authenticity: Place matters. Tourism Geographies, 15(4), pp. 680-686. DOI: 10.1080/14616688.2012.762691

Steintrager, J. A. (2020). Journey to Italy. University of Toronto Press.

Smith, M. K. (2017). Tourism and wellbeing. Annals of Tourism Research, 66, pp. 1-13.

Twain, M. (2011). The innocents abroad. Empire Books.

Vaiour. (2004). Treasures of Malta. Christmas 2004, 11(1), pp. 67-72.

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Anny Polyzogopoulou

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