Church of San Bernardino in the Bones

Via Brolo, 1. (Open Map)


This is a church that is highly unusual in many ways. It is located on Via Brolo, between the Verziere, one the city’s fruit and vegetable market, and Piazza Santo Stefano. The church and sanctuary dates back to the 13th century, when an ossary was also built alongside for use as part of the cemetery for those who died in the nearby “Brolo” hospital. Both structures were seriously damaged in 1642, when the belltower of the adjacent church Santo Stefano collapsed. The Ossary was repaired, while the church-sanctuary was rebuilt by Andrea Biffi in 1679. The present-day atrium was designed by Carlo Giuseppe Merlo, one of the architects working at the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo (the company that built the Cathedral). Work started in 1712 and was completed in 1750.
Outside, the building is not particularly dramatic, but it is nonetheless interesting for its architecture. However the real focus of this location is the ossary-chapel. This is a small square-plan chapel, with a small, decorative altar surrounded by votive offerings and relics. The ceiling consists of a small frescoed dome, with angels and clouds on a sky-blue background.The walls of the chapel are lined by human bones, probably from the people who died in what was the hospital of San Barnaba in Brolo, victims of the plague. Other remains may have come from 16th century cemeteries that were later suppressed. The skulls enclosed in the sections above the external part are those of prisoners condemned to deathSan Bernardino alle Ossa is known as the “most Piedmont-like church in Milan” because of its Baroque-Rococo style.The 16th century canvases inside include depictions of Saint Lucio, patron saint of cheesemakers, whose Confraternity is located in this church.According to a legend, on 2 November, the day of the dead (All Souls), the bones of a little girl on the left of the altar return to life, leading all the other skeletons in a sort of danse macabre.