The Ossuary in Sedlec - Kutna Hora
Kutna Hora is a town in the Czech Republic about 70 km (44 miles) east
of the capital Prague. The town flourished during the 1300 due to the
immense silver findings in the vicinity. The town provided most of
the silver for the coins circulating in Europe at the time. As the town
grew new churches were built and old ones repaired and expanded.
One of the most famous medieval cathedrals, the Church of Santa Barbara
(Kostel sv. Barbora), was built at that time with money raised from the
miners from the area in honour of their industry's patron saint and
without involvment of any governmental funding.
Another less known church (but of major interest to us!) was sittuated
in Sedlec - a kind of a suburb to Kutna Hora some 2 kilometres away from
the Kutna Hora town centre itself and got heavily expanded with a new
Chapel added to the old buildings.
The Sedlec Cistercians weren't just joining the Kutna Hora construction
boom when they started expanding. They did it because of practical
reasons. That chapel with its belonging graveyard had become a well-known
and attractive place to get ones relatives buried in a long
time ago. Why you may ask?..
The answer is to be found in the actions of a certain abbot Henry. In the
year of thy lord 1278 the Cistercian abbot Henry embarked on a pilgrim
voyage to the Holy Land (Palestine). This was more or less common practice
for people of the church at the time. What he couldn't have imagined is the
effect a little symbolic deed that he performed would have on the future of
the little Sedlec church.
While in Palestine abbot Henry visited the Golgotha and from there he
brought back to Sedlec a jar full of earth. He referred to this as 'Holy Soil'.
When he got back he spread the earth over the Sedlec cemetery and thus the
cemetery begun to be considered as a piece of sacred land. The burial ground
rapidly became one of the most popular in central Europe and people from all
over the country and Europe came to Sedlec to get buried when they felt the
strength of life diminishing. Many brought their dead relatives or friends
to be buried in the holy soil of the Sedlec cemetery believing that the holyness
of the ground was a sure way to guarantee the buried a place in heaven.
Many corpses and bones were accumulated this way and especially during the
times of the plague (the black death) many who were about to die from the
disease came themselves to be buried in Sedlec. By 1318 over 30 000 bodies
were buried there and this gave rise to the creation of the ossuary.
The ossuary is located in the All Saints' Chapel built around 1400.
The chapel is still surrounded by a functioning graveyard and if you
take a careful look at the top of its towers you will see that
that a "jolly roger", or a skull and crossbones, replace the usual Christian
cross. The ossuary itself dates from 1511 when a half-blind monk
was given the task to gather the bones from the abolished graves and
putting them in the crypt to make place for new "customers". The task
may seem somewhat macabre and unenviable but it served a practical
purpose. Anyhow - now the material was in store and waiting for an
idea and someone to realize that idea.
A more questionable task than the one of the half-blind monk was the
one of the local woodcarver who as late as 1870 was hired to decorate
the inside of the Chapel with the human material (an approximate of
40 000 sets of human bones) at his disposal. The name of the artist
was Frantisek Rindt and the employer was the Duke (Prince?) of
Shwartzenberg. The coats of arms of the family Shwartzenberg was
one of the creations evolved from the artists mind. Another one is
the chandelier which contains every human bone in the body, several
times over, of course.
However questionable the Ossuary - it is real. The bones are real.
The feeling of death is real. But also the feeling of peace.
Most of the dead in the Ossuary died a "natural" i.e. non-violent
death and the bones were removed from the ground to give more
Christians the possibility to be buried on holy ground.
I'd like to stress the fact that the church is not made of bones
as so many seem to think! The interior is decorated with human
bones but it's a "normal" church made of stone and bricks. I'd also
like to point out that it's a normal Christian church with a Christ
on the cross figure and all the rest. It's not some weird cult or
Satanist church or anything like that.
Need I say that a visit is strongly recommended?...
1 April - 30 Sept 0800 - 1800
1 Oct - 31 Oct 0900 - 1200 1300 - 1700
1 Nov - 31 March 0900 - 1200 1300 - 1600
Last Ticket 30 Minutes Before Close
Info passed to me by Bill & Linda R Dunn. Thanks... :)
There is a short black and white film inspired by the Ossuary.
The film is made by Jan Svankmajer - a renowned Czech animator.
This is the short description I found about the film:
The Ossuary - Jan Svankmajer
(1970, 10 mins, B&W): Baroque macabre record (with impeccable rhythms
and a wonderful jazz score) of a curious Sedlec church.
And here is a website with pictures and a more precise description
of the film. There is also a quicktime movie online. Be sure to
go there and find out some more!
Thanx to Sergei from Moscow now I know how to find the film!
According to him the film has been published by the British film
Institute and is to be found as:
Svankmajer vol. 2 in Connoisseur Video by British film Institute.
There seems to be only a PAL and no NTSC version.
While on the subject of films... The Dungeons and Dragons movie
was shot partially at the Sedlec ossuary.