One of the “corpse theatre” stagings of the 19th century (all images courtesy Archives of the Roman National History Society)
When staging representations of biblical themes for education and entertainment, many times it was easier for the religious orders of the 19th century to just use the corpses they had on hand to fill the roles of the dead. Elizabeth Harper of All the Saints You Should Know (and a regular Atlas Obscura contributor) recently shared some these rare “corpse theatre” photographs from the Archives of the Roman National History Society.
Utilizing the crypts and cemeteries they charitably maintained, particularly those for burying the indigent, the orders positioned skeletons and rotting cadavers as carefully as any stage directors. Often these scenes were for Catholic feast days linked with mortality, such as All Soul’s Day. Through these photographs you can also see the contemporary appearance of the Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte crypt when it was used by the Confraternity of Prayer and Death to bury migrant workers, particularly those who perished of malaria working the fields outside Rome. Harper explains the strange scenes:
When it came to sacred representations, they were the Broadway of their time. The confraternity employed set designers, costume designers, machinists, etchers, and wax sculptors to make extremely realistic and explicit scenes of death, purgatory and the final judgment with the bodies they collected. Popes and kings attended and the public lined up down the street. The first photo [pictured above] shows their scene depicting the Martyrdom of Diodorus and Mariano in 1865. The second image [below] is an etching of the last representation they mounted before their grounds were destroyed- The Vision of Ezekiel in 1868.
These images are from the end of the corpse theatre era, which was effectively stopped by Rome’s joining Italy in unification in 1870, the new burial laws limiting the casual casting of corpses in the productions.
You can see more recent photographs of Santa Maria dell’ Orazione e delle Morte at All the Saints You Should Know.