We couldn’t have visited Prague without taking a day out of the city to visit Kutna Hora and the infamous ‘Bone Church’. The ossuary is located in Sedlec, one of the oldest parts of the town. Now famous as a tourist attraction and one of the twelve UNESCO world heritage sites the Czech Republic can lay claim to, Kutna Hora has been a place of great religious significance for thousands of years.
In 1278 a handful of earth from the Holy land was sprinkled upon the cemetery grounds here. The cemetery then became famous throughout central Europe, and was considered by the rich and famous of the time to be something of a desirable place to be buried. However, the burial ground became somewhat less exclusive across the 14th Century, as breakouts of the Plague led to an influx of burials.To give an idea of the scale of deaths at this time, the year 1318 saw 30,000 deaths here.
The Hussite wars in the early 15th Century further boosted the numbers in the burial grounds. There are skulls on display in the church today that belonged to soldiers who fought in these wars. Some clearly died from one decisive injury. But some skulls show evidence of injury and then healing. Of course, there is no way to say what kind of state the men who survived their initial injuries were left in. Seeing these skulls was fascinating and thought-provoking. Brutal times!
So with the numbers going into the burial ground swollen by war and disease, something had to be done. So many bones, so little space. Time to get creative. The Church of All Saints was constructed and, underneath, a chapel designed to store the bones of abolished graves. The Charnel house was remodeled in Czech Baroque style between 1703-1710 and the Bone Church as we would recognise today was brought into existence.
There are various schools of thought on how and why the bones came to be arranged as they are. Some think a half blind and slightly mad monk started arranging bones for reasons unknown. Others think the Schwarzenburg family commissioned the whole affair as some sort of statement about death being unavoidable and so on. We do know the arrangement of bones as they are presently was begun in 1870 by a Czech wood-carver by the name of Frantisek Rint. If you look carefully you’ll spot the name Rint spelled out in bones inside the church. Rint also made the magnificent chandelier that contains each bone of the human body, and the recreation of the Schwarzenburg coat-of-arms. The coat of arms depicts a bird pecking out the eye of an invading soldier. Suitably macabre, given the medium.
The overall tone of the place is actually fascinating, rather than macabre . There is a certain beauty to it. I found the contrast between the piles of bones and the glow of candle light glinting on the coins people leave about the place quite something. We did hold some reservations about taking our younger travelling companions but they seemed to make non of the conventional associations with death or horror and approached the whole thing with openness and curiosity. I suspect the atmosphere may be more sombre or haunting if you can find a quiet time to visit. However as the chapel is small and its reputation large, this might be rather difficult. If you’ve visited Kutna Hora, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. If you’ve visited any other Bone Churches across Europe ,I’d love to hear about those experiences too.
Until next time,