Kostnice (Church of Bones), Kutna Hora, Sedlec Ossuary, Prague
The Bone Chapel
Photography, published in American Gothic Magazine, DARK REALMS.
Bone Church History
40,000 dead form morbidly fascinating sculptures and artwork; skeletons meticulously fashioned in 1870 by a wood carver. This is Sedlec’s Church; All Saints ossuary in the Czech Republic.
Sedlec is a suburb to Kutna Hora, a town in south Bohemia that once flourished due to its mined silver reserve. It is about an hour’s travel from Prague (click here for details on getting there).
So why were so many corpses buried here, and who was responsible for the works of art? In 1278 the Cistercian abbot of Sedlec, Henry, traveled to Palestine and the ‘Holy Land’, bringing home a sample of earth from Golgotha which was later, upon his return, sprinkled over the grounds of his local cemetery. The grounds were immediately considered scared, and hence became a much sought after location for relatives to bury their dead. In the 14th century, the Black Death spread the bubonic plague across Europe and now 30,000 bodies all wanted a resting place within the sacred grounds. Such vast numbers of dead led to the creation of the ossuary in 1511 by a half-blind monk who gathered up the bones to be stacked up within the ossuary, making space for new corpses, which were soon taken up by more victims from 15th century Hussite Wars. The ossuary itself is situated in the basement of the All Saint’s Chapel.
Frantisek Rint, wood carver and artist was employed by the Schwarzenberg family to imaginatively compose the bones into works of art; amongst his creations came the Schwarzenberg family’s coat of arms, and a chandelier containing every bone in the human body (although I couldn’t say whether this includes the smallest bones found in the human ear!), composed of several bodies. In the four corners of the ossuary sit four ‘bells’, pile upon pile of bones carefully stacked with a hollowed centre.
I had come across the “Church of Bones” (as I then knew it) once or twice on the Internet and again having watched Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s Motorcycle adventures “Long Way Round”. As I was about to visit Prague, I decided to take a day trip out to this ossuary and so having taken two trains out from the city of Prague, I had stepped out of the heated carriage and into the cold snow laden town of Kutna Hora.
All Saints Church stood picturesque in the crisp fresh snow. With its more recent graves laid out in front, there were no glimpses as to the ossuary that lay beneath the ground. The door on the side of the church was ajar and even before I stepped inside, I was transfixed with by first glance of the amazing array of skulls, femurs and pelvises, carefully fastened and sculpted by Rint over 130 years ago. Arrangements lined the walls, and a set of dark uninviting steps lead down to chandelier that dominates the chamber. Once I had stepped inside I felt disconnected to reality outside of the church, as though I had stepped into a film set and an elaborate collection of props. Such thoughts do not do justice to the ossuary, but it is a lot to take in one go despite its relatively moderate size.
Frantisek Rint, wood carver and artist was employed by the Schwarzenberg family to imaginatively compose the bones into works of art.
Having gazed in wonderment down into the ‘bells’ where countless bones were stacked one upon the other, I began to appreciate that every skull represented a person; a life so different from my own, yet connected in many other respects, not least because I too would one day be reduced to these ghostly remains, a forgotten memory from an unwritten future’s history. Often plagued by existentialist thoughts, I think such a visit did more good than harm. I couldn’t really agree with Ewan McGregor’s comment that the church was “a serial killer’s wet dream that put him right off his lunch!”, as an artist myself I could value the artistic merit of the bone's arrangements and the internal reflections they induce. If any existence continues beyond this life, I see it as ludicrous that they might dwell on the remnants of their body. Even bones decay given enough time, and what is time when you are dead?