The Magnificent and Macabre in Bohemia

The Sedlec Ossuary in Kutná Hora (literally Mining Mountain,) about an hour’s ride from Prague is one of the most interesting places I’ve encountered in all my journeys. Before its silver was depleted at the end of the 16th century, Kutná Hora was a prosperous mining center, the site of the official Royal mint, and the second most important Czech city. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it also contains a Minting Museum and “Cathedral”a dedicated to Saint Barbara, the patron saints of miners. Since the church (not officially a “cathedral” since it was not for a Bishop) bears my namesake, I wanted to visit. On the way, our tour stopped at Sedlec Ossuary about two miles north of the city. An ossuary is a place for the storage of bones.

Here, I discovered a chapel containing the remains of 40,000 human skeletons. The Cistercian monastery was founded near the site in 1142. In the 13th century the monastery cemetery became a popular place for burials after Henry, the abbot of Sedlec, returned from the Holy Land with a handful of earth from Golgotha, which he sprinkled on the graveyard. During the plague of the 14th century and the Hussite wars of the 15th century, the cemetery was enlarged. Ultimately, the Gothic Church of All Saints was built in the middle of the burial ground and many of the bones in the ossuary were unearthed during its construction. In the 1700s, parts of the church were remodeled in the Czech Baroque style. However, it was around 1870 that the influential Schwarzenberg family commissioned artist Frantisek Rint to use the bones to decorate the chapel as a reminder of human mortality. The majority of the bones are piled into four bee-hive shaped “bells” that fill the corners. A huge chandelier containing all of the bones in the human body hangs in the center nave. Alternating bones and skulls decorate the arch above, while rows of hanging bones create a fringe-like border just below. There are columns, pedestals, chalices and even a coat of arms, all fashioned from human bones and skulls.

    The Kostnice (Church of Bones) in Kutná Hora is not the only notable Ossuary in the world. The Bone Chapel of Evora, Portugal, Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins, Rome, Italy and Convento de San Francisco, Peru are religious sites decorated with thousands of human bones, while Douaumont Ossuary in France is a monument to the soldiers who fell at the Battle of Verdun in World War I.

    I did eventually get to see Saint Barbara’s and the rest of Kunta Hora, including the minting museum with its Italianate courtyard. In 1338, the wealthy miners hired Johann Parlér, son of Petr Parlér, who built Prague’s famous St. Vitus’ Cathedral, to create a grand church dedicated to their patron saint, and I’m sure they were not disappointed. Parlér designed a broad, elaborate cathedral-like edifice accented with rows of flying buttresses and gracefully curved spires. The church, situated atop a hill at the end of a statue-lined walkway, was not officially completed until 1905, so a variety of styles are evident. Inside, Gothic and early Renaissance frescoes, paintings, and stained glass windows illustrate the mining and minting industries of the surrounding community. The magnificence of this building—and it is truly magnificent— contrasts sharply with the macabre setting of the ossuary. Travel offers us all the opportunity to discover new sites and experiences, sometimes beautiful, sometimes fascinating, but always interesting.


The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin