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Devotions in Flesh and Bone: Revitalizing the Dead in Capuchin Charnel Houses

Jason Di Resta

Crypt of the Skulls, 17th-19th century. Rome, Santa Maria della Concezione (Photo: J. Di Resta)

 By the end of the sixteenth century, members of the Capuchin Order of Franciscan friars had begun drawing on the longstanding European tradition of ossuaries or charnel houses to develop a new manner of mortuary décor comprised of post-mortem materials. These elaborate installations of mummified and fragmented cadavers have been excluded from Western canons of art and dismissed as popular loci for macabre entertainment. In attempting to redress this exclusion, my project explores the social and salvific stakes of utilizing human remains for the creation of funerary art and the impact of this practice on religious experience in Post-Reformation Europe and South America. Those who frequented the Capuchin ossuaries did not understand human remains as inert materials; instead, each bone operated as synecdoche for the psychosomatic unity of an individual identity that was expected to rise again. Imbued with latent animation, human bones provided artists with an opportunity to redesign nature’s most perfect design. This project investigates how the materiality and display of ossified ornaments infer beliefs about their spiritual (im)purity, potential reanimation, and power to organize social life in religious communities located in Italy, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, and Peru. In doing so, my research challenges the assumed principles of knowledge that inform Euro-centric historical narratives in order to privilege the epistemic diversity of indigenous cultures and the impact of local visual and religious traditions on the artistic manipulation of human remains.

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