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Poor Clares Convent Cemetery of Ischia, Italy, and its macabre story

3 min read

We are at the Aragonese Castle of Ischia, one of the Phlegraean Islands at the northern end of the Gulf of Naples, Italy.
The castle is already unique in itself, standing on a volcanic islet connected to the main island of Ischia only by a causeway, called Ponte Aragonese.
However, one of the many rooms inside the castle has a particular history worthy of a horror movie.

The origin of the islet dates back to the 5th century BC, and the castle was built by Hiero I of Syracuse in 474 BC. At the same time, two towers were built to control enemy fleets’ movements. The rock was then occupied by Parthenopeans, the ancient inhabitants of Naples. In 326 BC the fortress was captured by Romans, and then again by the Parthenopeans.
In 1441 Alfonso V of Aragon connected the rock to the island with a stone bridge instead of the prior wood bridge, and fortified the walls in order to defend the inhabitants against the raids of pirates.
Here, between the 16th and 18th centuries, almost 2,000 families lived because it was the only place protected, but the castle saw many different owners and purposes over the ages, including a convent, an abbey of Basilian monks of the Greek Orthodox Church, the bishop and the seminar, and the prince with a military garrison.
There were also thirteen churches.
In the 17th century, it became home to a convent of an order of nuns called the Poor Clares. The first Poor Clares arrived at the castle of Ischia in 1577, and sixteen of them definitively left the monastery in 1809. Silence, prayer, chastity, enclosure was the path of the nuns kept within the walls of the convent until their death.
And, in the underground cemetery of the Poor Clares, you can see the remains of a gruesome tradition.
At the time, when a nun died her lifeless body, literally removed from the light of earthly life, was placed in a sitting position on the “pupils”, stone chairs with a hole in it and left to mummify.
Of course the bodies slowly decomposed, and the liquids were collected in special vessels located under the seats, emptying them from every impure part.
Eventually, the skeletons were collected in an ossuary.
But, if this wasn’t enough, every day, the still-living nuns visited the death chairs to pray and meditate on death and the ephemeral earthly life.
However, spending several hours in such an unhealthy place, they often contracted serious illnesses, which in some cases were deadly.

In 1809, the British troops laid siege to the island, then under French command, and shelled it during the Napoleonic Wars to almost complete destruction.
It was abandoned soon after, before briefly becoming a prison until 1860.
Today the castle is the most visited monument of the island, and It is accessed through a tunnel with large openings which let the light enter.
Along the tunnel there is a small chapel consecrated to John Joseph of the Cross, the patron saint of the island. Outside the castle are the Church of the Immacolata and the Cathedral of Assunta. The first was built in 1737 on the location of a smaller chapel dedicated to Saint Francis, and closed after the suppression of Convents in 1806 as well as the nunnery of the Clarisses.
The stone seats of Poor Clares Cemetery can still be visited still today on stop #6 when exploring Aragonese Castle. The church of Immacolata, above the Putridarium, welcomes its last nuns, symbolically/emblematically depicted in the ghost of their habit on sixteen hanging curtains.
And their bodies, liquefied in clear water, survives through the some goldfish, live flames of their spirit.