Travel Tuesday: Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic

On my Europe trip in 2006 my friend and I spent a few days in Prague. At our hostel we heard about a road trip that you could take, which took you out to some smaller town in the Czech countryside. One of the benefits of having no real schedule was that we were able to hop right in the van and just take off. It was great to get out of the city and explore a part of the country that I probably never would have. Today, I’m going to tell you about one of the strangest (and creepiest) places I’ve ever been…the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutná Hora.

One of a dozen or so UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Czech Republic and one of the most popular day trips from Prague, Kutná Hora was once a booming silver-mining center. For a time in the late Middle Ages the town rivaled Prague for splendor and influence in Bohemia. Those days are long over, and today much of the town earns its money from tourism.

The Sedlec Ossuary is a small Roman Catholic chapel, located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic. The ossuary contains approximately 40,000-70,000 human skeletons which have been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel. Here is the story about how a church of bones came to be:

Henry, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec, was sent to the Israel (Holy Land) by King Otakar II of Bohemia in 1278. When he returned, he brought with him a small amount of earth he had removed from Golgotha and sprinkled it over the abbey cemetery. The word of this pious act soon spread and the cemetery in Sedlec became a desirable burial site throughout Central Europe. During the Black Death in the mid 14th century, and after the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century, many thousands were buried there and the cemetery had to be greatly enlarged.

Around 1400 a Gothic church was built in the center of the cemetery with a vaulted upper level and a lower chapel to be used as an ossuary for the mass graves unearthed during construction, or simply slated for demolition to make room for new burials. After 1511 the task of exhuming skeletons and stacking their bones in the chapel was, according to legend, given to a half-blind monk of the order.

Between 1703 and 1710 a new entrance was constructed to support the front wall, which was leaning outward, and the upper chapel was rebuilt. This work, in the Czech Baroque style, was designed by Jan Santini Aichel.

In 1870, František Rint, a woodcarver, was employed by the Schwarzenberg family to put the bone heaps into order. The macabre result of his effort speaks for itself. Four enormous bell-shaped mounds occupy the corners of the chapel. An enormous chandelier of bones, which contains at least one of every bone in the human body, hangs from the center of the nave with garlands of skulls draping the vault. Other works include piers and monstrances flanking the altar, a large Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms, and the signature of Rint, also executed in bone, on the wall near the entrance.

This was a completely unique experience to me…I mean a church of bones?!? Really!! One of my best recommendations to a fellow traveler would be to make sure that you don’t let the opportunity to experience new things and places you’ve never even heard of pass you by. An itinerary can be a great thing, but don’t be fixated on it because you never know where a random road trip could take you!  


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