It’s the skulls you see first as you stand on the stairs. Human skulls at the tips of the up curving arms of the chandelier, proud and poised high on platter-like collars of overlapping hip bones. Dropping from each in a swooping arc, back and up to a central column, a line of ulnas hang bleached and straight, on a rope of vertebrae, like fringe. The central column itself is composed of sacrum, patella, and radii, decorative chains of mandibles help distribute the weight. This chandelier contains every bone in the human body, at least once And it is beautiful.
Kutna Hora Day Trip from Prague
Welcome to the Sedlec ossuary, 70 kilometers southeast of Prague, in the Czech Republic, less than two hours by bus or train from that city. The town of Sedlec is a suburb of Kutna Hora, which, during the middle ages, was the richest and most powerful town in the Czech lands. This trip can be done in a day, start out in the morning to Kutna Hora, visit the gothic church of Santa Barbara, squeeze down into the silver mine at Hadrek for an claustrophobic, bone-crushing, underground tour, and make your way to Sedlec and its amazing ossuary.
In fact, you can see the ossuary first, as the train from Prague stops just a couple of blocks away.
Sedlec Ossuary – an Art Gallery
Make no mistake about it, the Ossuary in Sedlec is an art gallery. It elicits the same reverent tones from the visitors, the same openmouthed awe, the same studying with subdued voices, the same desire to touch, knowing one shouldn’t. But even more; it elicits the sense of being in a place of wonder.
An ossuary is a boneyard, a storage place for human bones. It’s usually a secondary burial place, the primary having been interment in the grave, or the crypt. Many religions practice exhumation; after a number of years in the first burial location, skeletons are removed to an ossuary where they can be viewed and prayed over. In the Catholic Church, an ossuary is used to house the relics, or remains, of saints and popes, and many of the faithful make pilgrimages to ossuaries so that they can look upon them. In the Middle Ages, when bodies were exhumed and found to be unusually well preserved, the condition of the corpse was believed to imply purity of soul and the remains would be put on display in churches.
The bones of Sedlec are displayed as sculptures. Assembled from an estimated 40,000 complete human skeletons, the astonishing room is full of chalices, pinnacles, pyramids, coats of arms, in exquisite detail; every joint, every curve, every line made of bone.
There are crowns and scepters sculpted of ball joints, finger bones, rib bones, and scapulas. There are family crests and candelabras made of thighbones and arm bones and hip sockets.
A bit of history
The bones that you see in Sedlec were exhumed more than 500 years ago, for practical reasons. The cemetery was a popular place to be buried because the land had been considered Holy Ground since 1278, when soil from Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, was spread there. Bohemia’s first Cistercian monastery owned the land at that time, and a monk in their service had returned with the precious soil after a diplomatic mission to Jerusalem. Nobles and the wealthy from all over Central Europe clamored to be buried there, and by 1400, what with the black plague pandemic and Hussite wars, the cemetery was full. A church of All Saints was then built in the middle of it, with a chapel below to house exhumed bones; their removal from the soil meant that more Christians were able to be buried in this sacred ground. The bone were cleaned, piled in pyramids, and there they sat, in storage, for hundreds of years.
In 1783, the Cistercian monastery was abolished by the Holy Roman emperor, Joseph II, who considered contemplative orders useless, and in 1870 the monastery lands were under ownership of the Schwarzenberg family of aristocrats. (At one time the Schwarzenberg estate was so large that they possessed almost the whole of southern Bohemia, and the family exerted a major influence on Czech history from 1661 to the 1900’s.) The Schwarzenbergs hired František Rint, a Czech woodcarver, to organize the disarray of bones; to clean and make a pleasing arrangement of them.
The signature of Rint himself adorns a piece of one wall, delicately picked out in finger bones, and his arrangement lives on, long after Rint himself, and the rule of the Schwarzenbergs, long after Hitler, the Russian occupation, and the Velvet Revolution. Rint’s gallery continues to amaze, to overwhelm, and to pique the curiosity of following generations, making them want to learn, to know more bout this time in history, proving that, indeed, dead men do tell tales.