'Living Skeletons Scenes' – Bergamo, Italy - Atlas Obscura

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'Living Skeletons Scenes'

Six paintings reminding you that death is integral part of everyday life.  


Chiesa di Santa Grata Inter Vites is known as such because the remains of Saint Grata were first buried here. The appellation Inter Vites refers to the fact that the church was once surrounded by vineyards. The original Chiesa di Santa Grata Inter Vites dates back to the 14th-century but was destroyed during the 16th-century. The current building is from the 18th-century, which in a city that has remains of the ancient Roman Empire, is a relatively new addition.

The building is quite ordinary. What makes it special is Bonomini’s “Living Skeletons Scenes” (“Scene di Scheletri Viventi”)— a set of six paintings that appears behind the altar. Vincenzo Bonomini painted this set between 1802 and 1810 for the celebration of the Suffrage for the Dead. As such, these paintings were on display only once a year for this celebration. The idea behind the images was that capturing mundane scenes, while substituting bodies with skeletons, reminded people about the transient nature of human existence. 

The level of relatability is enhanced by the fact that the people used as prompts for these paintings were well-known in the area, and despite the fact that they were represented as skeletons, they were easily recognized. Of note, the scene with the painter was a self-portrait that also features Bonomini’s wife and his young apprentice. The underlying message was that just as the skeleton is an integral part of a living body, death is also an integral part of living.

This somber message was not within everyone’s reach. Being able to recognize the identity of the person behind each skeleton was received with humor, a trait present in other works by Bonomini. However, not everyone was appreciative of mixing the humorous and the macabre. During the 19th-century, these paintings were removed from the church and given to a museum in Florence.

Although the facial expressions of these characters are missing, their feelings can be easily guessed from the posture, costumes, and context in which they appear.

Know Before You Go

Chiesa di Santa Grata Inter Vites only opens for functions. Visit this website to find out when services are held. 

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August 27, 2021

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