Tuesday, June 17


The Capuchin and the Auto-Icon

A friend writes:
My friend/colleague/office mate, [name], just got back from a tour of Italy, and went here.

This is the Capuchin Crypt - she was kind of disgusted by this. It could be seen in many ways, though - glorification of death, reminder of death, beautification of death, disregard for the body....
Death reduces us to gut reactions--whether it's the "eww, cool, gross" of the ten-year-old mini-Goth, or the silent gasp of the comfortable suburbanite; both reactions are natural, in their own way, and point equally to different aspects of our human condition.

Admitted, the Robert Howard weirdness of the crypt is old news here on the Shrine, but sometimes repetition has its uses.

Simply in terms of pragmatics, let's not forget Europe has been burying folks much longer than we have here (okay, yes, there were the Indians, but the American continent was never as densely populated). So urban cemetaries tended to fill up quickly; and there were of course issues of sanitation and the like involved. Usually after about ten years they'd disinter the body, which had been reduced to bones, and stack them up in what was called a charnel house. Naturally, sometimes people discovered artful ways to arrange them. The Capuchin chapel is a particularly elaborate version of this sort of thing.

Some aspects of Catholicism aren't for everyone, but it seems to me that something like the Bone Chapel has important value as a reminder of a number of first principles we often lose sight of; it reminds us simultaneously that death is inevitable, and our bodies will turn to dust, but that our bodies are still important and part of our being. The bones aren't just being burnt, as a denial of the resurrection, the ultimate rejection of the body, nor are they being used in a utilitarian way, hung up in some anatomical museum; they are arranged like ornaments or gems to decorate a chapel as they are too God's handywork.

An instructive contrast: Jeremy Bentham, the cold English utilitarian, had himself taxidermied after his death as a teaching tool, dubbed the auto-icon, the ultimate self-portrait. The head didn't fare so well and had to be replaced with a wax replica; the real head used to get occasionally stolen as a student prank. The whole unnatural contrivance is on display inside a cabinet somewhere in University College, London. Bentham proposed that dead bodies should be used practically--stage props, teaching tools, statuary. This is the opposite of the incorrupt saint or the whole bone-chapel--which is still a tomb, and a commemoration of the collective, anonymous example of the Capuchins; it is set aside; we do not condemn the dead body to another round of misuse at the hands of well-meaning technocrats.

(Bentham supported animal rights, divorce and usury, while at the same time condemning human natural rights as "nonsense on stilts." My gentle readers may draw their own conclusions.)

Of course we're going to be somewhat uncomfortable, as the separation of body and soul is a cosmic horror and unnatural--Christ wept when he beheld the tomb of Lazarus--which is why we profess faith in the resurrection of the Body, but at the same time it allows us to contemplate on the importance of the body, and at the same time, its unimportance. The monks preserved the bones because they are part of us, and yet they are used in a way that is selfless and anonymous. It shows the humility of the monks as individuals, who recognized they did not even own their own bodies in death as in life--they are God's to dispose--and yet shows the dignity of humanity as a whole, God's ultimate artwork, more worthy to stud a chapel ceiling than the richest of gems.

And feel free to be freaked out. On some level, I am too a bit squeamish. But recognize there's something beyond the weirdness, just as there is something beyond death--heaven and the promise of the glorified body. And at a certain point, even in the crypt, death stops and life begins again: for the one chapel in the crypt free of bones is the one spot in the place where you can celebrate mass, the wellspring of our grace-filled life here on earth.

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