The Church of San Bernardino sits in the city centre of Milan behind the Royal Palace and just a few steps from the Duomo Cathedral.
Officially opened and consecrated by the Archibishop of Milan in 1776 owes its fame to a chapel within the church, an ossuary, which is entirely decorated with skulls and bones.
The origin of San Bernardino though dates back to the 12th century. In 1127 there was the need to build up a new hospital in the city of Milan and a few years later a cemetery was added to the complex. In 1210 when the capacity of the graveyard became insufficient it became necessary to build a crypt and then in 1269 a chapel that was dedicated to the Mater Dolorosa. It was during the 15th century, when the church was under the control of the Order of the Disciplines, that the church took the name of San Bernardino, a saint once belonging to that same order.
When in 1649 the bell tower of the nearby church of Santo Stefano collapsed and destroyed the most of the San Bernardino’s church it was time to rebuild it and the architects Buzzi and Quadrio decided to use the bones and skulls of the crypt with a decorative purpose. And the idea of a crypt decorated with bones became so popular that even John the Fifth, the king of Portugal after a visit to San Bernardino decided to build a replica of the ossuary in the surroundings of Lisbon.
Despite its popularity the faith of the church was once again in jeopardy. A fire left nothing but the façade of the San Bernardino chapel and cinerarium.
In 1712 architect Merlo, who had previously worked for the construction of the Duomo cathedral gave to the church its present aspect. He decided to build an ambulatory to connect the new church and the old ossuary which was spared by the fire.
It basically took almost six hundred years to complete a project that now enriches the cultural heritage of Milan. Plenty of tourists each year are guided through the secrets and misteries of one of the most iconic landmarks of the city. A legend says that on the night of the 2nd of November each year a little girl whose bones are kept in the altar of the ossuary comes back to life and dances with the other skeletons all night long…
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