When travellers first hear of a church of human bones outside Prague, it might conjure images of bizarre horror films, but if cemetery space became scarce in medieval Europe, exhuming human skeletal remains to make way for new burials was not unusual.
The exhumed bones were usually removed to a sanctified storage place, often within a church or chapel crypt. The English word for such a place is ‘Ossuary’, from the latin word for bone ‘os’. Within the Czech lands alone there are at least three ossuaries that have survived the centuries and are open as historical attractions.
The biggest and best known is in the Kutná Hora suburb of Sedlec, in the cemetery chapel of a former monastery. This particular cemetery became popular when the 14th century abbot Henry returned from his mission to the holy land with a handful of soil from the mount Golgotha and spread it around the graveyard.
Influential people from as far as Bavaria, Poland and even Belgium arranged to be buried there. With burial capacity further stretched during the 14th century plague epidemic and overwhelmed by the Hussite wars of 1418-14, the crypt of the cemetery chapel was pressed into service as an ossuary.
What makes the Kutná Hora ossuary especially remarkable is the detailed arrangement of the bones. The first arrangements of the bones were undertaken by a partly blind monk who stacked the bones into six huge pyramids in the early 1500s. The current appearance dates from after the abolition of the monastery in the Imperial reforms of 1784. The aristocratic Schwarzenberg family bought the monastery’s property and in 1870 employed woodcarver František Rint to arrange the bones into the shapes they take today.
Rint disassembled two of the pyramids, bleached and disinfected the bones and set about wiring them into various shapes. Strings of skulls and crossed bones hang above the wide stone staircase down into the crypt, where the four remaining pyramids occupy the corners and leave a cross-shaped floor space open to visitors. A small altar, four tall candelabra and display cases showing skull wounds of Hussite soldiers all bear inspection, but the highlights are a Schwarzenberg crest made entirely of bones and a great chandelier that is said to contain at least one of each of the bones of the human body.
The Kutná Hora Ossuary is open year round except the 24th and 25th of December and Outsideprague.com has a guide map to print for free.
Overlooking the junction of Bohemia’s two greatest rivers at Mělník, and within easy daytrips’ reach of Prague, the cliff top Church of saints Peter and Paul conceals an ossuary beneath its presbytery. The modest entrance is from outside the church and a narrow winding staircase leads down to a dim stone crypt. The arrangement of bones here is much simpler than at Kutná Hora; the skulls on the sides of the huge piles arranged into simple symbols for the three Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity and a Latin inscription Ecce Mors! (Behold death!)
The Mělník bone chapel is open year round Tuesday through Sunday with last entry at 3pm
At Mikulov in South Moravia, the bone chapel is beneath the Church of St Wenceslas, just steps from the central square. This is the smallest and plainest of the three big Czech ossuaries, but just across Mikulov’s square is the Dietrichstein tomb, where the bodies of the powerful aristocrats lay in coffins in the wings of the former, now roofless, church of St Anne. The Mikulov bone chapel is open only in July and August.
One of Brno’s best known tourist attractions is the system of catacombs beneath the Capucin monastery, housing the ghoulishly mummified bodies of monks, some still clutching rosaries and crosses. But across town during excavation near the Church of St James a recently discovered ossuary (2001) will be opened to the public after restoration. Apparently it’s the second largest in Europe after the catacombs of Paris.
In addition to the Paris catacombs there are ossuaries in Rome, Portugal, and near the WWI battlefields of Verdun (France) and Gallipoli (Turkey). Closer to the Czech borders are ossuaries at Kudowa Zdroj (Poland) and Hallstatt (Austria).
Brno image - blesk.cz