In Rome, Italy, there is a small church called Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. The church itself is not that different to the many beautiful churches in Rome, but it is special because of what lies beneath it. After walking down two staircases underground, one is faced by a door leading to the Capuchin Crypt.
Once inside the crypt, one can see why it is so famous – it is an ossuary, the burial place of human skeletons. The Crypt is made of six small chapels, each decorated with the skeleton of over 4000 bodies. Ribcages are organised into hearts, thigh bones are used to frame pictures and tailbones are used extensively with skulls to produce elaborate works of art. Even the bones of the fingers are used to create elaborate patterns on the wall. The chapels also have intact skeletons still dressed in brown friar habits (religious robes) from the 17th century. They also contain the remains of babies.
The reason why some skeletons are dressed as friars is that most of the bodies are those of Capuchin friars, buried by their order under a church according the regulation of the Catholic Church. In 1631, Capuchin monks brought 300 cartloads of deceased friars and buried them in the crypt. As monks died over time, bodies that were buried for the longest were exhumed to make room for the new bodies. This led to the accumulation of thousands of thirty-year old skeletons and so the monks decided to honour those friars by decorating the chapel with their bones. Among the buried are also bodies of poor Romans whose bodies no one cared for.
In the last chapel of the crypt, the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, the central skeleton stands out as it is enclosed in an oval of femurs (thigh bone) and holding a scythe and a scale. It is a symbol of death, reminding those that gaze upon it that all humans are mortal in the face of time. The room also contains a plaque with the following message in five different languages:
“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”
There is a legend in papal history regarding a certain Pope John VIII, who is believed to have reigned between 853 – 855 AD. The reason this pope is so famous is that legends state that “he” was in fact a woman, making her the first (and only) female pope in history.
Legend has it that she was a very talented and intelligent woman who, with the help of disguising herself as a man as education was forbidden to females in those times, quickly rose in the church hierarchy to eventually become the pope. After a couple years of power, her true sex was discovered when she gave birth to a child one day.
There is reasonable evidence of her existence, ironically through the extensive cover up of her existence by the church. After finding out that she was a woman, history tried its best to forget the fact by constantly removing evidence of her existence. For example, in the 14th century a series of busts of past popes were made for the Duomo of Siena, one of which was named “Johannes VIII, Foemina de Anglia”, suggesting a female pope by the name of John VIII.
It is possible that she managed to deceive people of her gender by having a form of adrenal hyperplasia, which would lead to her having abnormally high levels of androgen during development. This would lead to ambiguous secondary sex characteristics, such as facial hair, androgynous appearance and possibly even an ambiguous genitalia (but of course she would have had a mild form as she was able to conceive and birth a child).
Pope Joan had a significant impact in papal traditions. Two which are famous are the change in the papal procession path and the sedia stercorania.
The childbirth scene that exposed her occurred during a papal procession, whilst passing a narrow lane. That lane is no longer passed after that event occurred.
The sedia stercorania is a chair with a hole in it that was used to install new popes. The reason for the hole was so that a junior cardinal could reach below the chair on which the pope was sitting on, and check whether he had testicles, after which he would announce: “Duos habet et bene pendentes” (he has testicles and is well hung). This became a compulsory examination after the scandal of Pope Joan.