Sights to see in the Algarve: the Capela dos Ossos

By admin | | Posted in: Pine Cliffs

We hope you’re enjoying our series on sights to see in Portugal’s beautiful Algarve. In previous installments of this series we introduced you to the region, explored some of the most popular villages, and detailed some must-see historical and tourist attractions such as the Museu Municipal de Faro and the Palacio de Estoi. We hope you’ll use this series as a guide to finding the top attractions in the Algarve and plan your perfect trip abroad.

In this blog post, we’re going to explore one of the world’s most famous — and spookiest — chapels, the Capela dos Ossos, constructed almost entirely of human bones.

For this ghoulish church, the name is a dead giveaway: it translates to “Chapel of Bones”, and indeed, the skeletons of over a thousand monks were packed into the walls and pillars of this otherwise airy and light-filled church. Skulls punctuate the sea of femurs and other bones at regular intervals, grinning down at visitors in perpetuity, and gruesomely, entire skeletons, clad in tattered rags, dangle from ropes from the ceiling. Over the door is an inscription that translate to: “Stop here and think of the fate that will befall you — 1816”, in case being surrounded by thousands of human bones was not enough to cause you to contemplate your own mortality.

Built by Carmelite monks as a dark reminder of the brevity of our earthly journey, the chapel sits upon the site of a larger church and cemetery, and the remains of some 1200 monks that were displaced during the construction were used as building materials for the new chapel. Displacing old bones was actually a common practice throughout Catholic Europe until fairly recently, and as a result there are several bone chapels throughout Portugal (the most famous is situated in Evora, in the Alentejo region). Franciscan and Carmelite monks between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries constructed these chapels in order to promote contemplation among their brethren and serve as a constant reminder of the impermanence of life. There is no doubt these chapels of bones were highly effective in this regard.

Visitors who wish to see the skeletons of the Capela dos Ossos up close must first find the ornate twin towers of the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, a baroque church with a spectacular white and gilded facade that seems incongruous with the ghastly chapel that lurks behind it. Originally built by João V and completed in 1719, the current facade was completed after the devastation of the 1755 earthquake that destroyed or damaged many of the buildings in this region. This ornate church is also well worth a tour if you’re in the area, and features a magnificent gilded interior that perfectly summarises the baroque style. If you wish to head straight for the Capela dos Ossos, the entrance can be found to behind the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo.

Opening hours: 9am-1pm and 3-5pm (sometimes open as late as 6pm) Mon-Fri and 9am-1pm Sat. Mass is held 9am Sun.