We’ve all been to Valletta’s Evans Building to renew our passport or ID Card, and although it’s very easy to miss, right next door to the it there is a very weird overgrown area which sort of looks like gated rubble. Just that, a fenced area with rubble inside it. We don’t really put much heed to this area, as we are generally busy dreading the queue that we’re about to face.
Well, after some digging around (quite literally), there’s actually a surprising lair waiting just underneath the unassuming surface.
Way back in the 16th Century, a quaint chapel and cemetery were built in the Sacra Infermeria area in Valletta.
Some years had passed by, and a certain Knight, Giorgio Nibbia, decided that a new chapel was needed in the area (because as we all know, Maltese people and Knights are very fond of anything church-related).
In 1619, Nibbia financed the building of this chapel, dedicating it to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart — one of the five million Madonnas in existence.
However, people started calling this the Ta’ Nibbia chapel since most probably every town had an Our Lady of the Sacred Heart church in it. When Nibbia died in the 17th Century, he was entombed in a stone sarcophagus within the beautiful chapel. The Nibbia chapel had a very particular design to it which is very uncommon on the island — the dome was shaped like a pyramid instead of the usual circular one we are accustomed to.
At the time, the Nibbia chapel was mostly used to offer mass for the repose of people who died in the Infermeria. But it seems like this lovely chapel was doomed to have a difficult life. In 1730 it was yet again demolished… only to be rebuild again in 1731. Oh wow.
In 1776, the cemetery was officially overcrowded AF from the patients of the Sacra Infermeria (seems like we didn’t do a very good job at keeping people alive) ,so it was cleared out and the bones were deposited into an ossuary.
Now, bear with us, because there’s a bit of a confusion on this.
Sources on the internet say that the Nibbia chapel and the Chapel of Bones are the same thing, as does the sign right over the ruins. However, people from the Valletta Local Council and a local architect state otherwise. They told us that these chapels were just standing close-ish to each other. So it is said that the Chapel of Bones is somewhere a bit closer to the Evans Building car park. And by close, they mean right under the car park’s cement.
In 1852, Rev. Sacco, the Chaplain of the Sacra Infermeria, had the brilliant idea of decorating the chapel with the bones from the cemetery. The ceiling and the walls were adorned with skulls forming beautiful shapes and patterns made entirely of human remains. He created breathtaking patterns with all the weird bones the human body has to offer, flowers were created using fucking scapulae and smaller body bones were used as a trip for the walls, and it looked so, so, so beautiful. So from then on, Ta’ Nibbia either had another name-change, or it got a new neighbouring chapel.
For some time, the church and the crypt enjoyed fame as a macabre tourist destination, because they looked fucking amazing and people love looking at beautiful stuff. In 1914, author Sidney J. Thomas wrote a book called Six and One Abroad. We have no idea what the hell that was about, and we really don’t care, but he did write about this ethereal chapel.
“This gruesome decoration of bones is not disposed at random and in sparse bits here and there,” Thomas wrote. “It’s 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 wainscotting of ribs. In the world, civilised and savage, there is not another such a gruesome and appalling spectacle. It was a clever artist who assembled these, the relics of the sturdy Knights of Malta, into such extraordinary schemes of drapery and friezes and ornaments.”
The Church of Bones and the Ta’ Nibbia chapel lived happily ever after in their location and were preserved in pristine condition forever to be enjoyed by future generations. Or so we wish.
In 1941, along with most of Valletta, the chapels were completely destroyed by Axis forces during the heavy bombings that the island endured during the Second World War.
Among the rubble, one other thing survived; the sarcophagus of the Knight Fra Giorgio Nibbia.
The thing is, we’re not entirely sure the sarcophagus lies to this day. It’s either still sitting among the rubble, or it’s still somewhere in the car park. At least we kind of know it still exists.
Some of the bones were recovered from the rubble and buried at the Addolorata Cemetery, although as already stated, most people believe that this bonespace is still intact underground.
Architect Edward Said and the Valletta Local Council tried to intervene, but the site does not belong to the Local Council strictly speaking, and they have no idea what the government wants to do with the whole area.
They tried to get the funding to clean it up and open it for the public, but it seems like that was the day a couple of very expensive brown kiosks took priority over national heritage.