Averara Skeletons – Averara, Italy - Atlas Obscura

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Averara Skeletons

Averara, Italy

Five painted skeletons are hiding behind a church in this tiny village in the Italian Alps. 


Averara is a tiny village along the Via Mercatorum, a medieval route linking Bergamo to the rest of Europe. Being on this route meant influencing and being influenced by the cultural trends of the time. A confraternity of penitents called disciplinati (or disciplini) became particularly influential between the 13th and 15th centuries. 

Usually looked with suspicion because of their emphasis on the mortification of the flesh, the disciplinati were often branded as heretics, but theologian and preacher Venturino de Apibus popularised this extreme religious practice in the valleys surrounding Bergamo. Around this time, and in line with the disciplinati’s motto, “memento mori” (remember that you must die), portraits of skeletons started appearing in, on, and around churches. 

Behind the church of San Giacomo in Averara is an octagonal building. Five of its sides are each adorned with a skeleton, while the other three sides have obviously been painted over. The first skeleton appears to be looking at a container, and the writing above it reads “Look and have mercy on me, for I am poor and alone.” This is the only writing clearly visible on the building.  The second skeleton holds a key on the right hand and a scythe on the left, the third is playing a lyre, the fourth is holding a scale and a sword, and the fifth is looking at a globe (or a spherical astronomical instrument) while holding a protractor.

The building resembles a baptistery. A truncated pillar encased by glass on the floor would give credence to this theory, as this may be all that remains of the pillar holding the baptismal font. It is, however, incongruous (or certainly unusual) to have skeletons adorning a place where new-born babies are baptised. Could it be that the disciplinati wanted to remind new-born babies that they have to die? Possible. Could it be that the paintings were done after the building had been decommissioned as a baptistery? Also possible. At the time of writing, no clear answer exists.

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August 13, 2021

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