Last Updated on September 19, 2020
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Evora is a must-see for history lovers visiting Portugal. In Evora you’ll find Celtic megaliths older than Stonehenge, Roman ruins, a medieval cathedral, and a chapel of bones, all set against a backdrop of Portugal’s Alentejo wine region.
The Igreja do Sao Francisco, or San Francisco Church, is the site of the Evora Chapel of Bones. Built between 1475 and 1550, the church contains a main nave and a dozen small chapels full of baroque woodwork. But the most notable features of the church are tucked into an adjoining chapel. Next door are the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) and above it a Museum Center (Núcleo Museológico), with exhibits of religious artworks and nativity sets from around the world.
I knew I wanted to visit the Chapel of Bones when visiting Evora. But seeing the nativities was an extra treat for me since I have my own nativity collection as souvenirs of my travels! In this guide I’ll share all the tips you need to visit the San Francisco Church, Chapel of Bones, and the Canha da Silva Nativity Collection in Evora.
Be sure to read all my Evora travel tips before you visit, including a map with the top sights and recommendations for the best places to stay!
Last Updated on September 19, 2020Seeing all the things to do in Evora, Portugal is like taking a trip back …
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How to Visit the Evora Chapel of Bones
Evora can be visited on a day trip from Lisbon, but it’s also a perfect weekend getaway! There are so many charming hotels and restaurants in Evora that I think it’s worth more than just one day. Not to mention its 2,000 year history, sights, and wineries. Get all my best tips for Evora here.
Guided Evora Walking Tours
If you’d like to see all the top sights of Evora with an expert local guide, check out these Airbnb experiences: guided 3-hour private Evora walking tour or this guided 3-hour tales and legends of Evora walking tour. Airbnb Experiences have become one of my favorite ways to find authentic tours by locals when I travel!
Day Trips to Evora from Lisbon or the Algarve
If your itinerary is packed and you’re looking for good day tour options, check out these itineraries from Lisbon and the Algarve:
San Francisco Church in Evora (Igreja do Sao Francisco)
Both beautiful and imposing, the San Francisco Church in Evora was extensively restored in 2014-15. It’s located less than 5 minutes by foot from Evora’s main square. You’ll recognize it by its facade with a wide porch blending Moorish and Gothic style. Over the entrance are the emblems of the kings that commissioned its construction, Joao II and Manuel I.
The first Franciscans arrived in Evora in 1224 from Galicia. Only traces of the Gothic church and part of the cloister, built in 1376, remain from the original convent.
Built between 1475 and 1550, the San Francisco Church has a single nave lined by twelve small chapels. I especially loved the artistry of these little chapels, which are decorated in carved and gilded Baroque woodwork.
The church is open from 9AM – 5PM (extended to 6:30 in summer). It has mass at 11:30AM Monday – Saturday and at 9AM and noon on Sundays. Admission to the church itself is free. The Chapel of Bones and Museum Center admission is currently 5.00€ for adults and 3.50€ for children and seniors.
Visiting the Evora Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos)
The Chapel of Bones ossuary is one of the most-visited sights in Evora. It’s located in the former dormitory of the monks of the original San Francisco cloister.
The chapel entrance is a small door to the right as you face the San Francisco church. From there, follow a covered portico walkway to chapel. There is a desk on the left as you enter to pay the entrance fee.
History of the Chapel of Bones Evora
The bones of more than 5,000 skeletons of human bones line the walls of the Chapel of Bones. Constructed by monks in the 16th century, it solved a problem of overcrowded cemeteries. But it also served as a message from the monks who wanted local residents to mediate on materialism and the inevitability of death. (An extreme “you can’t take it with you” reminder!)
The entry room to the chapel is decorated with tile panels by the architect Siza Vieira, with images contrasting death with the miracle of life. An inscription above the chapel entrance translates as: “We bones in here wait for yours to join us.” “Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos.”
Inside Evora’s Chapel of Bones
Inside, bones are stacked along the walls and arranged in patterns. Bones and skulls even cover the pillars that support the chapel ceiling! There are a few small windows, but the stacks of bones are illuminated with up-lighting, adding to the macabre scene. In contrast, the ceiling of the chapel is adorned with beautiful frescoes of religious symbols and allegories. The ceiling decoration was added later, in 1810.
Among the bones here are those of the three Franciscan monks who founded the church in the 13th century, located in a coffin ossuary by the altar. The chapel also includes the grave of a bishop who died when Evora was invaded by French troops of Napoleon’s army in 1808. Two desiccated corpses are displayed in glass cases, including one of a child.
The entrance fee is 5 Euros for the Chapel of Bones in Evora, and also includes the museum and nativity collection upstairs. There is a small gift shop where you can buy Evora postcards and books, as well as jewelry and religious gifts.
Museum Center (Núcleo Museológico) & Canha de Silva Nativity Collection
As part of the church restoration project in 2014-15, the unused former dormitories of the Franciscan monastery were restored and renovated into a modern museum space. It now serves as the museum of the monastery and church.
The San Francisco Museum collection includes artworks, religious sculptures from the 16th to 18th centuries, vestments, and devotional objects. It also features a collection of religious jewelry focusing on works by local goldsmiths. I loved this space and the contrast of antique religious artifacts with its modern architecture.
A few of the display cases in the museum feature nativity sets, as a preview of the upstairs galleries. Above the museum are terraces with views of the city and upper galleries that display a collection of nativities from Portugal and around the world.
Canha de Silva Nativity Collection in Evora
The Canha da Silva Nativity Collection is the private collection of Major-General Fernando Canha da Silva and his wife Fernanda Canha da Silva. Inspired by their religious beliefs and reverence for the Christmas holiday, they began collecting nativities from local Alentejo artists. The collection grew as they expanded to collecting nativities from other regions of Portugal and abroad.
The Canha da Silvas first displayed their collection in 1999 in the cloister of the Graca convent of Evora, which led to other exhibitions throughout Portugal. In 2015, the collection found a permanent exhibition space in the new San Francisco Museum Center.
Visiting the Nativity Collection
Over the years the Canha da Silva collection has grown to 2600 nativity sets from over 80 countries worldwide. More than half of the collection is from different cities and regions within Portugal. However, less than a quarter of the collection is on display. Each nativity demonstrates both the craftsmanship of the artisan and the culture of its origin through local materials. And of course, its religious significance as well.
As you walk through the exhibit, nativities are numbered inside their display cases. To figure out what region or country each nativity is from, you’ll find laminated cards at the entrance of each room that list the number with its corresponding origin, artist, and materials.
I absolutely loved the collection of nativities in Evora! Having seen a similar exhibit at the Washington National Cathedral at home, I began collecting my own souvenir nativities in my travels. So this was a highlight of my visit to Portugal.
The sheer volume of nativities in this collection is astounding. But seeing all the materials, colors, and different interpretations from so many countries side-by-side was such a delight. Some are formal and traditional, while others are colorful and playful, and a few are even quite modern and abstract. Once you start connecting each with its country of origin, it’s easy to see trends in styles of artwork and native materials.
Need more Portugal travel tips & nativities?
Evora is a destination for year round. I hope this guide has helped you decide to see the Evora Chapel of Bones and world nativity collection, no matter what season you visit!
Be sure to check out my collection of souvenir nativities, which includes a curated list of nativities from global Etsy sellers in case you want to start your own collection!
I fell in love with the Washington National Cathedral’s exhibit of world nativities – and started collecting them in my travels! See photos of my collection and get links to my shoppable Etsy lists of world nativities.
Last Updated on September 19, 2020 Seeing all the things to do in Evora, Portugal is like taking a trip …