Long years ago the basement of the convent was filled, to the depth of a number of feet, with earth brought from Jerusalem, in which, when they died, the members of the order were interred ; but the cemetery soon proved too small, for, at length, the last grave was filled. But what an injustice to the surviving members of the brotherhood ! When they came to die, what then? Must they be deprived of the privilege of resting in the holy earth? This could not be, and so, when another died, the brother who had lain there longest was taken up, and when his bones had undergone a little treatment, they were laid away in a pile, which constantly grew by the addition of others, as the years went by. Then came along a bright, suggestive monk, one who was an artist by nature and a genius, and having received permission to do as he pleased, he arranged them in this remarkable manner, saving the entire skeletons of those who had achieved fame – becoming cardinals or the head of the order, and, clothing them in the usual gown worn by the Capuchins, stood them up in niches made by the bones of the rest. The cardinals, judging from their expression, enjoy the humor of the situation.
But it must be confessed that, to the ordinary observer, to see thigh bones and shoulder blades, arms and pelves, worked up into bouquets, garlands, and elegant tapestries, and to behold above our heads, as we do now, a unique lamp formed out of a skull, and vertebrae suspended from the ceiling by the bones of the forearm, and to see before us, on the opposite wall, a perfect mantel-piece on which rests a row of genial craniums, and above them another row still, and above them, again, a couple of arms extended as though inviting you to lay aside your reserve and walk up and shake hands with them, is certainly a sight calculated to
“Make each particular hair to stand on end, Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.”
Since the present government has had charge of the city, burial in this basement has been prohibited, but the bodies that now sleep in the narrow graves marked by the simple crosses are permitted to remain there.
In this Church of the Cappuccini is a famous painting by Guido Reni, The Archangel Michael trampling upon the Devil. The Devil is said to be a portrait of Pope Innocent X, whom the painter disliked exceedingly. The private preacher and confessor to the Pope has always been a Capuchin monk.
Leaving these mournful reminders of our mortality, let us go next to something that almost seems possessed of enduring life and majestic power, something which is at once one of the glories of Rome and of modern art, the Moses of Michelangelo. This statue is in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, which is found on the map a few blocks north of the Colosseum. We saw the church with its open porch and low tower when looking from the Capitol.