Oratorio Mortis et Orationis, Monterosso al Mare
Right next door to San Giovanni Battista is the chapel of the Brotherhood of Death and Prayer: Mortis et Orationis. Dating to the 16th century, it belongs to one of the surviving charitable lay groups created during the Counter-Reformation when the Catholic church, under threat from the spread of Protestantism, decided it needed to clean up its act. Confraternita dei Neri - Fraternity of Blacks - was responsible for the welfare of orphans, widows and victims of shipwreck, burial of the destitute, and “black” refers to the color of attire they wore in religious processions.
Upon first look the rather sadly deteriorating chapel appears to be decorated in a lacy filigree of intricate white plasterwork upon a rosy background: very pretty. But a second glance reveals something darker among the winged angels, graceful scrolls and dainty curlicues: macabre skeletons and death’s heads leering ominously from the frieze, the capitals, even carved into the choir stalls. These "memento mori” are found in many churches all over Italy and are reminders that your days on earth are numbered but eternal life is, well, a pretty long time so best behave yourself.
The fraternity is still somewhat active but their services are not in the same demand they once were - which probably accounts for the dilapidated state of the church. Entrance is free but donations for restoration are gratefully accepted so consider dropping a euro or two in exchange for some interesting photo-ops?
L'oratorio della Confraternita dei Neri (Oratory of the Black Brothers), called "Mortis et Orations" was built in the 16th century to commemorate the many sailors that left their lifes at sea. It belongs to the Brotherhood of Black Brothers, also called Brotherhood of Death and Prayer (Mortis et Orations Confraternitas).
The brotherhood was established in the 16th century, during Countering Reformation, when many associations of lay devotees was founded with the purpose to contributing in good works for the society. Black Brothers are religious brotherhood whose main purpose was to bury the dead, especially those from poor families who would not otherwise have been able to afford a Christian burial. Although their original purpose is less needed today, they continue to do good works in the town, with emphasis on special care for widows, fishermen poor and needy etc.
The Oratory keeps inside a wooden statue of Sant'Antonio Abate, coming from the former convent dedicated to the Saint, dated from 1000, which used to be on the promotory of Punto Mesco. The interior walls are decorated with the symbols of the Brotherhood, depicting a skull with crossbones and an hour-glass. Grinning skeletons look down on the congregation bellow, a reminder that for Christians death is not to be feared but to be welcomed.
A fascinating must see in Monterosso, an eye into a cultural tradition different than any to which I am accustomed --
The oratory could best be described, I believe, as a chapel belonging to a fraternal organization dating to the Counter-Reformation. This society's mission has been to care for poor widows and orphans and to see that funeral arrangements are made, with special emphasis on care for shipwrecked and fisherman.
The organization's symbol is shown in the third image - a skull and crossbones with an hour glass. Death is inevitable for all of us. It is just a matter of time.
Facing the same square as the Church of St John the Baptist, and at right angles to it, is the Oratorio Mortis et Orationis – the church of the dead and of prayer. It is a sign of the village’s wealth that two substantial churches were constructed in such close proximity to each other. As we approached we came upon a small group on an guided walk and were able to listen in to their guide’s commentary. I’m so glad we did, as we heard some fascinating facts about the church that I’m not sure I would have been able to pick up elsewhere.
This is the place of prayer of the Black Brothers, a religious society whose main purpose was to bury the dead, especially those from poor families who would not otherwise have been able to afford a Christian burial. Their church reflects this purpose. Look up at the four corners of the ceiling. Grinning skeletons (photo 2) look down on the congregation below, a reminder that for Christians, death is not to be feared but to be welcomed. On an arch near the door a skull sports a pirate’s hat (photo 4) in reference to one source of the village’s worth. And in a corner (to the right as you look back at the door) an old pew has been preserved, which like the church itself is decorated with skeletons (photo 5).
The society still exists today and uses this church, but with modern welfare support their original purpose is less needed. Yet they continue to do good works in the town, and to pray for the dead in their very unusual church.