The Bone Church

When we were planning day trips out of Prague, we had decided on Český Krumlov for sure; time permitting, we also wanted to take a trip to Kutná Hora, the town of the famed Sedlec Ossuary, or Bone Church.

The Bone Church is, as the name implies, a church decorated in the bones of an estimated 40,000 people (though some estimates put it closer to 70,000).  The story goes that the abbot of the monastery was called to Palestine in the 13th century, and returned with a bit of earth from Golgotha which he sprinkled over the cemetery.  This made the cemetery a most desirable place to be buried, and especially after the Black Death in the 14th century, the number of bodies to  be buried at the cemetery swelled to thousands.  Eventually a church was built with an ossuary underneath in which to store all the bones of all the people who were either displaced due to construction or moved to make way for new burials.  The bones weren’t arranged in their current configuration until 1870.  Très bizarre.  We had to see it.

We didn’t end up making it out there until Sunday, Sarah’s last day in town, and even then, we didn’t board the train until nearly 2pm (the aforementioned Pod Slavínem blitz having slowed us down considerably).  We did, however, have the foresight to make a thermos of Lord Nelson (our name for a concoction of Earl Grey tea & whiskey) and to bring some tangerines.

We got Lord Nelson, we got tangerines... let's go see some bones.

Kutná Hora is a small town about an hour’s train ride outside of Prague.  The Czech countryside is always idyllic, but especially on a day like this one, where the spring sun was determinedly trying to break through the wall of winter cloud cover.

After about an hour, the train pulled into Kutná Hora and we disembarked into the middle of nowhere.  We had been warned by Conor that the Ossuary is outside of town, and that outside of town feels like there’s nothing there, and he was right.  We began the twenty-minute walk to the church along a stretch of busy road, passing a few shut shops and what struck me as a very out-of-place Philip Morris factory.

Before long, we saw the church.

It was a lot smaller than I’d been expecting, perhaps because “Bone Church” sounds so epic.  We walked into the foyer, paid our 50Kč entrance fee, and descended into the strangest place I’ve ever seen in real life.

As you might expect from the name, there are bones everywhere, ornately arranged into chandeliers, ceiling trim, hanging garland, even a coat of arms.

The coat of arms is that of the Schwarzenberg family, a line of Czech aristocrats first mentioned as far back as the 12th century. They commissioned the current configuration of bones in 1870. Fun fact: the current head of the family, Prince Karel VII, serves as Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Czech Republic. And, until 1918, the family seat was located in Český Krumlov!

In case all this wasn’t macabre enough for you, there’s a case of skulls which display signs of medieval battle, including a couple that show “evidence of healing”, indicating the owners of said skulls survived the battles.

I'm guessing the guy on the left didn't make it.

Near the stairway into and out of the ossuary, there’s also an arrangement of bones with IHS in the center of it, which, according to the placard, stands for “Jesus, Savior of Humanity”; according to the internet, it is also either the first three letters of Jesus’s name, or the pagan trinity of Isis, Horus and Seb which was adopted into Christianity when Rome went Catholic.  For some reason, an homage to Jesus, fashioned from bones of people who most likely died during the horrific bubonic plague, strikes me as the most macabre arrangement in the church.

As it turns out, you only need about 45 minutes in the Bone Church to get the gist of it.  It’s a curious spectacle.  The fact that someone took the time to arrange the bones so ornately is interesting, and the results are beautiful, if bizarre.  But after I overcame the initial awe, I found myself considering the people that these bones used to be.  What did they look like?  What were their lives like?  What problems did they have, and what do those matter now that they’re just bones on display?  And, to that end, how would they feel if they knew they’d been dismantled and made into a chandelier, say, or a coat of arms?  How would I feel if it were me?  I left the Bone Church feeling like my problems, and really everyone’s problems (political, religious, etc) matter not a whit, because eventually all they’ll amount to in the end is a pile of bones.

*                *                *                   *

The next day, Sarah went back to the States, and the day after, Jim and I moved on to Kraków, where we are as I write this.  Our time in Kraków so far has been lovely, and I’m getting the hang of Polish wayyyy better than I ever did with Czech.  But all that in time.  Dzien dobry!

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