With every corner of the gruesome Sedlec Ossuary ornately decorated with bones from more than 40,000 skeletons, the Czech Republic’s “Bone Church” offers a very visceral reminder of the inevitability of death.
It all started back in 1278, when an abbot from Sedlec, a town 80km east of Prague, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and brought back some soil from the crucifixion site. Upon his return, he spread the dirt across the cemetery of the local church. As word of the sacred sand spread throughout Bohemia, the cemetery became one of the region’s most popular places to be buried.
The tradition continued through the 14th Century when the Black Death plague spread throughout Europe: in total nearly 30,000 plague victims from Central Europe were buried here. The Hussite Wars – a 1419 to 1434 series of Roman Catholic crusades against Bohemian reformers – also brought destruction to Sedlec and the nearby city of Kutná Hora; attacks left 10,000 more dead, all buried in the Sedlec cemetery.
In the 15th Century, many of the bones were exhumed to make way for a Gothic church, and were stacked and placed in pyramids in a new ossuary located underneath the new place of worship. There they remained relatively undisturbed until 1870, when a local woodcarver was hired to make something of beauty from the piles of bones below.
And so he did. The bleached bones can be found in fantastic formations throughout the small chapel, from chains of threaded skulls that drape entryways, to chalices constructed with hipbones and femurs, to a full family crest created in tribute to the Bohemian aristocratic Schwarzenberg family that hired the carver back in the 19th Century.
But the chapel’s centrepiece is the sprawling chandelier that incorporates every bone in the human body at least once, with skulls staring outward at the end of each of the seven chandelier arms – stationed for an eternal watch.
With the exception of Christmas Eve, the ossuary is open daily.