‘A Visit to the Crypt of the Capuchin Convent of Malta’

Posted by on January 17, 2008 in Blog tagged with
“Will you go on, or are you afraid?” These words were addressed to me by an old monk, as we stood together on the last step of the stair leading down to certain mysterious vaults which exist under the Capuchin convent of Malta. The monk was very decrepit, very ghastly – indeed, I might say, decidedly unearthly-looking – the voice was sepulchral, and the question not one to be answered without serious consideration…
So begins an anonymous journal piece of the 1840s, originally published in Chamber’s Journal (and subsequently reprinted in The Living Age, where you can read the whole thing online here). It’s travel writing of a particularly macabre variety: the ‘certain mysterious vaults’ in question are the home of a number of preserved corpses, to the writer’s simultaneous horror and delight.
And the next! I wish I could forget the face of the next in order; but I never shall: the expression of that countenance will never cease to haunt me! The fierce scowl on the forehead, the eyes starting from their sockets, the lips convulsively drawn back, so as to show the sharp, white teeth firmly clenched, all told an unwillingness to die – an utter dread of dissolution, which it is frightful to think of!
It’s fascinating not only for the subject matter (which, granted, might not be to everyone’s taste!) but for how easily it encompasses earlier Gothic conventions. And while nobody’s been buried alive here – at least, not literally – the idea of a monastery as a prison still has a firm hold.
The flesh was firm, the limbs retained their shape, the lips their colour; the very eyelashes and nails were perfectly preserved; and the eyes themselves, though fixed, as I have said, did not look dead or rayless. It was a frightful mockery of life, because so frightfully real. I could see no difference between these mummies and their deathlike brethren up stairs; whose long confinement in the cloister, and strict adherence to the most severe of the monastic rules, have wasted their bodies, quenched the fire of their eyes, and banished all expression from their faces.
For a more contemporary account of such a place, there’s a description of the crypt at Palermo on this Italian tourism website. The Palermo crypt is explicitly a tourist destination now, of course, complete with postcards, prohibitions on photography, and guided tours. Still, the description from the writer of a century and a half before isn’t so different, and the appeal, at least, seems to have been much the same. ‘[A]n absolute must for fans of horror movies’, the modern tourist site claims of the Palermo crypt; is this the earlier equivalent? And if so, was it consciously presented and sold as such even then?
I’ll leave you to judge for yourselves, and let ‘A Lady’ of the 1840s have the last word:
When I had gone round about half the room, and had minutely examined the features of some twenty of this ghostly company, I was seized with a very strange hallucination. On entering into the presence of these forty monks, I had been fully aware, of course, that they were all dead, and I alone was living; and now I was equally conscious that there was some vast difference between the present state of my grisly hosts and my own; only, after I had gone from one to another, ever meeting the gaze of their meaning eyes, and gathering such volumes of eloquence from their still lips, I could almost have believed that they were all living, and I myself dead, or in a dream! It was quite time to hold some communication with the living when assailed by such fancies as these; and I turned to look for my guide, with a strong desire to enter into conversation with him. I looked round and round in vain. I counted forty-one monks, therefore the living man must be amongst them; but the exact similarity of dress, and the motionless attitude with which he had installed himself between two of his lifeless companions, made it no easy matter to distinguish him.  

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