Europe is a treasure trove of a unique blend of history and art, which might be bizarre at times, but nonetheless interesting. There are hidden gems that haven’t yet received the attention that they deserve from the rest of the world. Few are easily found on the internet, if you’re looking at the right place, and others might appear in books. It’s true that fiction has a very important role in bringing out artworks and places of importance to the eyes of readers worldwide. A few years ago, we chanced upon a book called The Devil’s Prayer by an Indian writer, Luke Gracias. He had travelled widely across Europe and set unusual backdrops for his story. One of them was Sedlec Ossuary or The Bone Church, near to Prague. It made a special position in our wish list of unique things to see and finally we ticked it off in our trip to the Czech Republic.
In a nutshell
Sedlec Ossuary is one of a kind, a chapel decorated entirely with human bones and skulls. There are bones of an estimated 40000-60000 humans. To all those who have begun to cringe by now at this information – it is neither gruesome nor scary. People weren’t killed so that their bones would be used to decorate this church. When you actually visit the place, it is a calm and serene one, devoid of any horrors or macabre vibes. The sole reason being – this chapel is a memorial of lives lost, it does not celebrate their deaths. There is an enormous chandelier of bones, which is a must see.
Located in Kutna Hora, a suburb about 1 hour by train from Prague, the Sedlec Ossuary receives about 200,000 visitors per year.
The history behind
So, we scoured the internet for the history behind the Sedlec Ossuary and asked the locals while we were there. It is said that in 1278, the then King of Bohemia sent the abbot of the Sedlec monastery, Henry, to Jerusalem. He made his pilgrimage and returned with a fistful of soil from Golgotha, the birthplace of Jesus. Upon his return to Sedlec, he sprinkled this earth over the abbey cemetery. When the citizens of Sedlec heard this, all of them wanted to be buried in the cemetery to be a part of the holiness. There occurred Black Death in the 14th century and the Hussite revolution in the 15th century that resulted in a huge number of deaths. When the cemetery was full, they would exhume the skeletons and store them to make space for the new. So, the authorities built a Gothic church upon the cemetery and created a chapel underneath that would act as an ossuary to store the skeletons.
In 1511, a half-blind monk was asked to arrange the bones in order and legend says that after this work, he regained his eyesight.
In 1870, a woodcarver called Frantisek Rint was employed by the Schwarzenberg family to re-arrange the bones in an aesthetic manner. What resulted is the Sedlec Ossuary that stands now.
How to reach the Sedlec Ossuary?
It is most easily accessible from Prague. You can take a train from the Prague Hlavni Nadrazi station to Kutna Hora. The fare for second class is 7€ per round trip. It takes about fifty minutes and is a pleasant journey across the suburbs. Make sure you avail the cabins with air conditioning in summer as it gets sweltering. At the Kutna Hora junction, take a map from the station office and follow the trail of 1.5 km to the Sedlec Ossuary. It’s a nice walk if the weather is good and convenient too as there isn’t much of a public transport.
There is mostly a long queue at the entrance which is amidst a cemetery, so be prepared for that, as there is only limited space inside the chapel at any point of time. The ticket costs 90 Czech Krona per adult.
A little tip: Carry your own food and water as there are almost no shops from the station to the chapel.
The decor inside
As soon as you step down the stairs, the entire setting hits you at one go. There are skulls and bones all around, aesthetically designed just as any other piece of decor. There are a few different attractions inside the chapel that marvel in their own speciality.
The bone chandelier
Right at the centre of the chapel is a chandelier made entirely of skulls and bones. The USP of this chandelier is that it consists at least one of every kind of bone in the human body. That makes 206 bones already! It looks splendid and very artistically compiled. There are candle holders made out of bones and two angel statues hoisted above. It’s a beautiful thing to be clicked and displayed.
The monstrances and bone chalices
A monstrance is a holy vessel in a church to display the Eucharistic host (please Google the meaning, I have no idea). There are two large bone chalices at the entrance and two monstrances in the Sedlec Ossuary. A small tip for your visit: you are bound to get mesmerised by these, but don’t forget to click photos, they will be your memories of a lifetime.
The bone pyramids
There are six enormous bone pyramids that are made of the rest of bones after other decoration. They are well guarded so they don’t topple off and are beyond reach of truant tourists.
The Schwarzenberg coat of arms
This one’s by far my favourite. I liked it more than the chandelier. The Schwarzenberg family has been an influential one in Bohemia and they had appointed the woodcarver Rint to transform the ossuary into something interesting and aesthetic. He made the Schwarzenberg family’s coat of arms using bones and it looks spectacular.
There are other aspects to this chapel as well. There are skulls preserved in glass cases to display the injuries they had during fighting the Hussite war. To me, it’s a celebration and memoir of lives lost, due to Plague or war, whatever may be the case. They are honoured, remembered, and lovingly restored, rather than left off in a dungeon to rot.
If you ever visit the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, let me know if you paid your respects to the dead. You can find me on Instagram.
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