Of all the experiences I wanted to take part in while visiting the Czech Republic, it had to be the Sedlec Ossuary (or Kostnice).
Known to macabre seekers as the ‘Bone Church’, it’s a basement chapel in the Cemetery Church of All Saints. Worldwide it’s known for an unusual way of honoring the dead – over 40,000 (some literature says 70,000) skeletons are artistically fashioned to adorn the interior of the chapel. On full display.
It can leave one rippling with shivers – even wondering how a single man’s imagination could drum up such visions.
When it comes to sacred ground, it seems there are no limits.
Sedlec is actually the name of a suburb in the small town of Kutná Hora. While it remains a tight knit population at about 20,000 citizens, it’s daily numbers can swell significantly due to the popularity of Sedlec Ossuary.
Many recommend staying in the capital and making Sedlec Ossuary a day trip, but I was told by some insiders that staying in Kutná Hora overnight is worth consideration. Apparently both ends of town boast some beautiful architecture in Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. They are a sight to be seen at night as well.
The history of the ossuary is just as fascinating as being surrounded by these unique creations in person.
Basically it began with Palestine and ended with a woodcarver.
A long, long time ago, around 1278, the King of Bohemia, Otakar II sent the abbot of the local Cistercian Monastery to Palestine for a diplomatic mission (ya know, a meet and greet). The abbot’s name was Henry and after cocktail parties of grape leaves and wine he visited the place known as both Golgotha and Calvary.
Located outside of Jerusalem’s walls, Golgotha was the site where Jesus was crucified (big ouch!). Or so it was recorded as being the site.
Henry baked under the hot sun recording events mentally, cause you know, there was no Twitter or Instagram back in the old days. He then realized this had to be the top ten of sacred sites, so he collected some earth and placed it in a crate.
Okay, so he committed a little theft in the name of religion. Hopefully Jesus forgave him for his transgression. I once knew a girl who stole a piece of the Berlin Wall. Oops.
After Henry returned to Kutná Hora, he opened that crate of earth and scattered it across the grounds of the abbey cemetery.
We all know how rumours can spread quickly, gossip hounds told their eager listeners that this was the ultimate site to be buried and soon enough, requests that family members be buried there flooded the cemetery.
Face it, there was lack of resources or technology to open a separate customer service department to field these requests. Requests that were once in the hundreds, turned into the thousands.
A few key events in Europe directly affected the ossuary. By the 1300’s, the Black Death had Europeans dropping like flies who ate a bad batch of honey and the Hussite Wars in Bohemia was significant because it was the first European war to use pistols instead of swords.
In other words, more human remains were crowding the cemetery.
At around the year 1400 the actual church was built and the lower chapel was added to serve as the ossuary. However, the cinch was the new construction had unearthed a shitload of bones. It wasn’t like they could use a backhoe and haul the bones to a landfill.
The lower classes were certainly buried here, but likely a great number of the wealthy were also resting in peace, so to destroy the bones wasn’t possible.
Local legend tells of a half-blind monk tasked with collecting and shifting the bones from the construction site. That perhaps having to encounter this many dead souls is more tolerable if you can barely see them.
When the 19th century arrived, further additions were made to the chapel with a new entrance while the church above was rebuilt.
In 1870, the House of Schwarzenberg, a prominent aristocratic family originating from Bohemia decided to commission an artisan and woodcarver named František Rint to creatively display the bones.
Who’s to say what inspired Rint’s ambitious pieces. One thing for certain, some main features of the ossuary are grimly fascinating.
An elaborate chandelier is an example of every bone of the human body.
Bones composed into the shape of a chalice.
Four candelabras replete with skulls.
Six pyramids of bones (shaped very much like a bell).
The Schwarzenberg coat of arms.
Here’s a photograph of the real Schwarzenberg coat of arms. The raven pecking the head of a Turk represented the conquest of a Turkish rampart in Germany. The replica composed of bones is done astoundingly well, no?
One of the two bone monstrances.
Finally, as any professional artist will advise, always sign your work. Rint left his mark near the doorway.
I really enjoyed the unconventionality of Sedlec Ossuary and found it difficult to put my camera down. If you find yourself in Prague, try visiting this uncommon place.
You’ll rethink what art and beauty is. Especially burial of the dead. We want evidence of death to be unseen, but the ossuary challenged me to realize that the physical leavings of our bodies isn’t negative, but proof that we existed in a certain time and place.
How: If you plan on a day trip, a train from Prague to Kutná Hora usually leaves every hour and takes about 55 minutes if you take a fast train. The slow trains take a bit longer, yet both types of trains cost the same – CZK 101. Choose the R, IC or EC fast trains where possible. If you have a Eurail or Interrail pass, this is considered a local train and is free.
Cost and Getting There: The ossuary is only a 10 minute walk from the Kutná Hora train station and the entry cost is CZK 60 for adults, CZK 20 for students.
Hours Open: The ossuary is open everyday except December 24th. Check the official website for details.