Despite the excellent medical services provided by the Order of St. John to the patients of their hospital in Valletta - the renowned Sacra Infermeria - it was inevitable that as in any other hospital, some patients died whilst receiving treatment there. Indeed, figures show that towards the end of the 18th century, for example, the infirmary was receiving around 4,000 patients annually, with a mortality rate of around 8%. Whilst knights and other important persons would have been buried elsewhere, the poor were interred in the cemetery across the street from the hospital, located on the site of today’s Evans Building. Even before this, an autopsy would most likely have been held, in the form of a lecture delivered by the teacher of anatomy to his students, in a dissection room located in the same area, and later replaced by an anatomical theatre that was still visible until its destruction by enemy bombing during World War Two.
There was, however, one other interesting structure in this area, also, sadly, damaged during the war, and its ruins are still visible to this day. Just across from the former Sacra Infermeria, within the grounds of Evans Building, one can still see the bombed-out ruins of the former Nibbia Church and the so-called Chapel of Bones, known thus due to the thousands of human bones that once decorated its interior. This chapel was once a top attraction in Valletta, seemingly even more popular than the likes of St. John’s Co-cathedral, as attested to by several old postcards and guide books. Sadly, few people, including the many tourists that pass through the area every day, are probably aware that those crumbling ruins are part of what was once a site of significant historical value.
The original church, dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy, was built in 1612 with the funds of the Italian knight Fra Giorgio Nibbia, hence the reason for it later being referred to as the Nibbia Church. It was located in the cemetery where those who had succumbed to illness or injury at the Sacra Infermeria were interred and was used mainly to celebrate masses for the repose of their souls. When Fra Nibbia died in 1619, he was entombed in a stone sarcophagus within the same structure. The church and its crypt actually stood a short distance away from the present-day ruins, facing the direction of the granaries in front of Fort St. Elmo.
In 1730, the decision was taken to demolish the building so as to make way for an expansion of the Casetta - the hospital for females. Interestingly, when Nibbia’s tomb was opened, it was claimed that his corpse was still in excellent condition, so much so that he appeared to have been untouched by death. In 1731, a replacement church was built a few metres away from its original site, thus explaining the location of the present-day ruins. Attributed to the Baroque architect Romano Carapecchia, the second Nibbia Church consisted of an octagonal building with a dome and two altars. It is worth noting that the underground crypt survived the move, and continued to exist in its original location.
By the late 1700s, the cemetery had reached its full capacity, and its grounds were abandoned and left in neglect. In 1776, the decision was made to relocate it, and the human remains were exhumed and reinterred in a large ossuary underneath the crypt. It was much later, in 1852, that the hospital chaplain, Reverend Sacco, came up with the idea of using the bones to decorate the crypt itself. He created intricate patterns to adorn the walls and ceiling of the crypt using different types of bones and skulls, as well as complete skeletons. Thus was born the Chapel of Bones. In his 1914 book Six and One Abroad, Sidney J. Thomas described it thus: “… a chapel whose walls and ceiling are lined with grinning human skulls. This gruesome decoration of bones is not disposed at random and in sparse bits here and there, but is arranged with artistic skill into all sorts of designs, shaped into full-framed skeletons that leer at you with ghastly smiles, into the curves of arm bones and arches of clavicles and windows and wainscoting of ribs. In the world, civilized and savage, there is not another such a gruesome and appalling spectacle.”
The crypt had one altar, bearing a Latin inscription lamenting the shortness of life and asking for prayers for the deceased. For many decades, this small chapel served as a place of strong religious devotion, as well as a macabre tourist destination. The month of November - the month of the dead - attracted many locals and numerous pilgrimages to this chapel. Even St. George Preca used the Chapel of Bones to speak about Christian eschatology - that branch of theology that covers matters such as death and the afterlife, Heaven and Hell, and the soul's final destination. The chapel’s décor would have provided the perfect setting for such a theme. In the early 1920s, the archbishop closed the chapel to visitors but it was reopened as a tourist attraction by the government in 1924, with an entrance fee of one penny according to one postcard from the period. The site was eventually closed down by Sir Temi Zammit, the Director of the National Museum.
In the course of an air raid on the night of 14th February 1941, several bombs fell in the area of the second Nibbia Church and the Chapel of Bones. Whilst the church suffered relatively minor damage, it was believed at the time that the famous underground chapel had been completely destroyed. Only some human remains were recovered, these being subsequently reburied at the Addolorata Cemetery in Paola. To compound this loss, the ruins of the Nibbia Church were also demolished during the 1970s, leaving only the sarcophagus of the chapel’s founder, Fra Giorgia Nibbia, along with remains of its foundations, visible within a now cordoned area in the car park of Evans Building.
Despite the ruins being given a facelift in 2002, they have since once again fallen into a state of disrepair. Interestingly though, some researchers have recently claimed that despite the damage on the surface level, the crypt might actually have survived intact, and could possibly still exist beneath the Evans Building parking area, perhaps waiting for the day when it could be rediscovered, thus revealing a long lost, historic landmark of our splendid capital city.
The latest development in the long history of the Sacra Infermeria came only last year, when a new virtual museum, titled ‘Reliving The Sacra Infermeria’, was inaugurated. The idea of a virtual museum, which brings together history and technology, was brought about by the need to satisfy visitors’ curiosity about the building’s former history without interrupting ongoing conferences or theatre performances that are regularly held here. Now, by downloading a mobile application that makes use of augmented reality, one can once more relive the building’s former days as a hospital.
Re-Living the Sacra Infermeria is a project co-financed through the European Regional Development Fund.
Vella, F., & Gatt, O. (2018). Bizarre Malta. BDL Publishing
Cassar, P. (1983). From The Holy Infirmary of the Knights of St John to the Mediterranean Congress Centre. Malta