Fact and fantasy collide at the Penang War Museum in Malaysia.
In Kutná Hora, a city just 70km east of the Czech capital, there is a modest Roman Catholic chapel whose interior is decorated with the polished skeletal remains of thousands upon thousands of human beings.
The Sedlec Ossuary is situated beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints, in a town that features prominently on the Czech tourist trail; but amongst Kutná Hora’s numerous churches, cathedrals, Jesuit colleges and museums, the ossuary stands out as one of Europe’s most notorious dark tourism destinations.
Although the exact figure is not known, the chapel is reckoned to contain the skeletons of somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 people. However, Sedlec is not the Czech Republic’s only ossuary (or ‘kostnice’). A quieter, less-frequented ossuary can be found in Mělník, while the Brno Ossuary is larger with a confirmed total of 50,000 human remains (making it the second largest in Europe, after the Paris Catacombs).
Nevertheless, the Sedlec Ossuary at Kutná Hora is perhaps the best-known ‘bone church’ in the world… largely due to the artistic precision with which its skeletons have been arranged. Inside this dimly-lit vault, skulls hang festooned from arches while bleached bones form decorative features and family crests. Meanwhile, at the heart of the ossuary hangs a chilling centrepiece; a macabre work of exquisite craftsmanship, a vast chandelier which uses every bone in the human body at least once – its seven arms terminating in grinning skulls that have leered down over the nave of this small Czech chapel for almost 150 years.
The Seed of Golgotha
The Sedlec Ossuary, believe it or not, has a story that some would trace as far back as the Garden of Eden.
In the late 13th century – when Sedlec was a part of the Kingdom of Bohemia – an abbot from the town’s Cistercian monastery made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He visited Golgotha, the hill outside Jerusalem where Jesus Christ was said to have been crucified. The Bible translates Golgotha as, ‘the place of the skull’; and according to some Jewish and Christian traditions, the skull of Adam himself is believed to be buried here beneath the mound.
When the abbot sprinkled soil from Golgotha on the cemetery back home in Sedlec, this grand blessing served to promote it to the most fashionable burial site in all Bohemia.
Word spread throughout Central Europe, and the cemetery at Sedlec Abbey expanded at a rapid rate. By the time the Black Death arrived in the 14th century, killing thousands in its wake, the monks at Sedlec were being delivered more corpses than they knew what to do with.
The ossuary was constructed sometime around 1400, a small chapel beneath the gothic-styled Church of All Saints. It was common practice in those years to relieve burial space by stacking bones closely in dedicated vaults; and the Sedlec Ossuary was just one of many such repositories built across Europe in the late medieval period.
Over the following century this ossuary would fill up fast. Even after the plague had passed, thousands of new interments would arrive following the 15th century Hussite Wars. In the 16th century, the role of bone collector was passed to a half-blind monk of Sedlec’s Cistercian order.
Working alone, this man would spend the remainder of his life preparing the bodies. The process would typically involve burying a corpse for several years, to allow the worms to remove its flesh. It was then exhumed and the bones were cleaned, polished, then stacked into great pyramids in the semi-subterranean chapel. Here they would remain for almost half a millennium, whilst empires rose and fell above.
Dark Tourism in the Czech Republic
I took the train to Kutná Hora… myself and dozens of other foreign visitors, all headed for the same gruesome destination in an otherwise unremarkable Czech town.
From the train station it was a short walk to the ossuary. I declined the numerous offers of tours; fully loaded buses that run a regular schedule from the station to the Sedlec Ossuary, to the Churches of St. Barbara, St. James, and St. John Nepomuk. A heaving crowd had gathered around one wall by the station’s exit, where a map of the town’s main attractions was being photographed for later reference on a dozen different iPhones.
Fifteen minutes later I had reached the ossuary on foot, passing one final knot of restaurants and souvenir shops, to step onto the green grass of the cemetery. From outside, the chapel is quite unremarkable… save for the buzzing crowds, there was little to set the sight apart from any other picturesque 15th century gothic chapel. Even the burial ground seemed smaller than it should have been. It was certainly nothing on the grand scale of London’s Victorian cemeteries, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much space had been repurposed over the years; medieval mass graves bulldozed, to form foundations for contemporary homes and gift shops.
Inside, the chapel was a blur – if I had hoped for solemn meditation in this otherworldly tomb, I would have been sorely disappointed. The Sedlec Ossuary is one of the Czech Republic’s most popular attractions; in 2009 a report on the nation’s cultural statistics estimated 200,000 visitors per year. At the door I was greeted politely in English, I paid my entry fee, and an information sheet was placed into my hand as I made my way down the steps to join the crowd. The dark, echoing chamber was filled with movement, voices, and, despite the numerous signs, the occasional bursts of camera flashes.
The majority of the bones in the Sedlec Ossuary stand today in orderly mounds, bell-shaped barrows built into the chapel’s four recessed corners. It is the remainder, however, which have earned this chapel its notoriety.
The Skeletons of Sedlec Abbey
The famously ornate display of skulls and bones which adorns the inner vaults of the Sedlec Ossuary did not appear until almost five centuries after the construction of the ossuary itself. Its architect was a local artist, carpenter and woodcarver, named František Rint.
Rint was employed by the House of Schwarzenberg – a family of the Bohemian aristocracy, whose members have risen to the ranks of royalty in the Holy Roman Empire. Meanwhile the latest patriarch in their lineage, Karl VII of Schwarzenberg, currently serves as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.
By the early 19th century the Sedlec Ossuary was full to bursting, its bones stacked in vast, chaotic pyramids. In 1870 the Schwarzenbergs set Rint the task of arranging the skeletons into a more aesthetic order; and this he did, employing perhaps more imagination than anyone could have foreseen.
František Rint created intricate sculptures out of bone including four chandeliers, altarpieces, a vast chalice and ornate decorative chains formed from dozens of threaded skulls.
In recognition of his patrons, Rint even replicated the Schwarzenberg family crest on one wall of the ossuary; recreating every detail, down to the crow plucking an eye from the severed head of a Turkish soldier.
Likely the most famous feature of the Sedlec Ossuary however, is its central chandelier.
Hung directly above the nave, this bony structure contains hundreds of individual pieces and includes every bone in the human body at least once. Its seven arms are formed from vertebrae, which finish in candle-mounted skulls; to give the impression of a mutation, a seven-headed beast reminiscent of prophecies from the Book of Revelation.
Whether it was Rint’s intention to channel images of the apocalypse, we’ll likely never know. What should be noted though, is just how delicately the raw material is managed. On paper, the Sedlec Ossuary should embody all the horror of an abattoir; perhaps it is a testament then to Rint’s artistic vision, that more than 40,000 human bodies could be dismembered, de-fleshed, and reassembled to create an exhibition which speaks only solemn respect to the deceased. Perhaps such a structure can’t help but by nature appear macabre; there was nothing about the presentation that renders these bones morbid however, nothing mawkish nor moribund inherent in this act of opening a curtain onto the afterlife.
Like any proud artist, Rint also left his signature on the work: “1870 F. Rint,” it reads, with his hometown, “Česká Skalice.”
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