Shadows of the Subject: Revitalizing the Dead in Capuchin Charnel Houses

Jason Di Resta

Crypt of the Three Skeletons (Detail of Ceiling). Rome, Santa Maria della Concezione. Author Photograph.

This book-length project interrogates art historical methods for interpreting the social, material, and metaphysical stakes of utilizing human remains as an artistic medium for the creation of Christian art in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By focusing on the bone-encrusted mortuary chapels of the Capuchin Order in Italy, Portugal, and Latin America, this project investigates how the materiality and display of ossified ornaments engaged Renaissance views about the preservation and dissolution of individual identity after death. 

For the friars and the laymen that frequented the mortuary chapels, human bones were not understood as inert materials; rather, for historical beholders bones possessed a thing-power that exceeded their status as mere matter. Like painting, sculpture, and photographs, bones metonymically express a lost presence, but unlike other artistic media, their substitutive potential moves beyond semantic association to material equivalence: each bone operates not only as synecdoche for the whole skeleton, but for the psychosomatic unity of an individual identity that was expected to rise again at the Second Coming of Christ. Imbued with latent animation, human bones provided artists and architects with an opportunity to redesign nature's most perfect design. This project explores the work these materials performed in particular temporal and spatial contexts in order to interrogate the relationship between a decomposing artistic medium and religious experience in Counter Reformation Europe and the Americas. As part of the Order's recuperation of medieval spiritual and material culture, the transformation of the deceased into sacred art also played an integral part in shaping the Capuchin Order's corporate identity.


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