Church of Bones: Bohemia’s Ancient Relics

“Mystery is to be embraced, not avoided. It is the place where the great secrets of the universe are told.

In the center of mystery there sits, like an ancient treasure chest hidden long ago, wonder and awe.”

Dance of the Dolphin by Karyn D. Kedar

 In the Czech Republic city of Kutna Hora, each day people arrive from all over the world to visit an underground chapel nestled beneath tall shade trees and surrounded by ancient tombstones. Unique in its celebration of death and resurrection, the Sedlec Ossuary of the Church of All Saints has as its décor the bones of the Slavs and  Celts of old who settled in the land that we know as Bohemia. High on the hillside, casting a shadow over the chapel, stands the stately Gothic  Cathedral of St. Barbara with its flying buttresses and magnificent interior of biblical scenes representing the birth, life, and resurrection of the Savior as envisioned by Catholicism. St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners, served as protector of the people during the era when silver mining was at its peak. Today, however, it is not the grandeur of St. Barbara that draws visitors. It is the tiny chapel known as the Church of Bones and a legend that begins with a visit to Golgotha where Jesus Christ was crucified.

Church of  All Saints Cemetery

Church of All Saints Cemetery

As in all fascinating tales, the legend of Kutna Hora’s Church of Bones has its protagonist. In this particular story the hero is the Cistercian Abbot Heidenreich, who in the 13th Century visited Jerusalem and  brought back a jar filled with soil from the holy ground of Golgotha. Tales spread throughout the countryside of miracles after the abbot sprinkled the sacred soil on the cemetery grounds. Then, a legend began that any body buried within the holy confines of the graveyard would decompose in three days, allowing the soul to leave its bleached bones behind and quickly return to God. During the following centuries, wealthy people came from as far away as Poland, Bavaria, and Belgium to bury thousands of their dead within the tiny cemetery. Most of the deceased were victims of the Bubonic Plague of 1318. Others perished in the Hussite Wars of the 15th Century.

The use of ossuaries, which are also called charnel houses, traditionally served to provide a secondary interment for the remains of the dead. It was common practice to use ossuaries in locations where burial space was limited. The Sedlec Ossuary, however, is unique in its use of  the bones of approximately 40,000 ancient Europeans as décor.  The process began in 1511, when a half-blind monk was assigned the gruesome task of exhuming the bodies. The cemetery had become overcrowded and burial plots were unavailable for the newly arriving corpses. Then, in 1870, the Czech woodcarver, Frantisek Rint was commissioned to organize the bones in a less random fashion. Of particular interest are the following:

  • a chandelier in the main nave containing every bone in the human body,
  • a coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family on whose land the chapel was located, with a bird pecking out the eye of an enemy Turk,
  • two monstrances (ostensorium) composed of bones and skulls,
  • garlands of skulls hanging from a vaulted ceiling, and
  • pyramids of bones in each of the chapel’s corners.

 

Entrance to the Church of Bones

Entrance to the Church of Bones

 

Schwarzenberg Family Coat of Arms

Schwarzenberg Family Coat of Arms

 

Sedlec Ossuary Chandelier

Sedlec Ossuary Chandelier

 

Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic

Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic

 

 

Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora

Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora

 

Resources

Outside Prague: The Bone Church

 

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