One of Czechia’s most famous tourist attractions is the Sedlec Ossuary (Czech: Kostnice v Sedlci), located in the town Kutná Hora, about 45 miles east of the country’s capital Prague. The place is often refered to as bone church or bone chapel, and that for a reason:
The Sedlec Ossuary contains the skeletons of approx. 40.000 people (some resources say up to 70.000), whose bones have in many cases (about 10.000) been artistically arranged to form furnishings for the chapel. When you enter the small, inconspicuous portal you don’t have very much time to prepare yourself for the sight: Due to the small size of the building (it’s really just a chapel) and the fact that there are no vestibules of any kind you’re instantly faced with the first decorations, all made of human bone.
Right after the entry a short stairway leads downward. To the left and right there are two huge, probably about 5.6 ft tall chalices made of bones. Downstairs there’s the enormous chandelier, which supposedly contains at least one of every bone in the human body. Underneath there are four pinnacles, each assembled with 22 skulls. The whole chamber features various garlands of skulls and bones.
The biggest part of the bones however is piled up in the side rooms, all in all four huge stacks. The main attraction besides the chandelier is arguably the big Schwarzenberg coat of arms, which is approx. 6.5 ft tall.
Short movie: The Ossuary
This amazing short movie from 1970 by director Jan Švankmajer shows the chapel in an incredible hectic, almost frightening manner:
It was the princely family of Schwarzenberg (which could be translated as “black mountain”) who bought the place in the 19th century. Up to this point the chapel was just a “normal” ossuary, without all the skeletal interior. In 1870, woodcarver František Rint was employed by the Schwarzenbergs to assemble the furnishings.
It is not entirely sure why the Schwarzenbergs wanted the human remains to be turned into decorations. Unquestionably bones and skulls were available in vast numbers: In 1278 the abbot of the monastery in Sedlec (which is located right next to the chapel), was sent to the “Holy Land” by King Otakar II of Bohemia. When he returned, he brought a small amount of earth from what he thought was Golgotha (a hill nearby Jerusalem where Jesus Christ was allegedly executed by the Romans – remains unlocated) and scattered it over the local cemetery. Due to this the cemetery in Sedlec became a desirable burial site throughout all of Central Europe.
The mid 14th century brought the Black Death, which resulted in thousands of victims. After the plague had vanished, already 30.000 bodies had been buried at Sedlec. After the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century, thousands more were buried in the cemetery, often in mass graves.
Around that time a Gothic church was built in the center of the cemetery with a lower chapel to be used as an ossuary for the mass graves unearthed during construction. According to legend, after 1511 the task of exhuming the skeletons and stacking their bones in the chapel was given to a half-blind monk. There were several conversions afterwards; like mentioned above the Schwarzenbergs purchased the chapel in the 19th century and induced the macabre interior finish.
How to get from Prague to Kutná Hora
If you reside in Prague and want to go to Kutná Hora, you can easily take the train or the bus. Depending on the connection the ride takes about 1 – 1,5 hours. You may want to be at the chapel as early as possible, because usually around 11 a.m. the ossuary will be packed with busloads of tourists, and like mentioned above, the chapel is not very big. Even worse than the bulk of people is the fact that most of them can’t even stick to the three simple rules of the ossuary: Be silent, don’t use flashlight, don’t touch the bones. The moment a group of people steps into the church they speak loudly, take pictures with flashlight and touch the furnishings, resulting in an alarm every time. But as already mentioned this suspect experience can largely be avoided by getting there early and, if possible, during the week.
For connections check this site: http://jizdnirady.idnes.cz/vlakyautobusymhdvse/spojeni (the language can be set to English or German on the lower right). No matter if you come by train or bus you have to arrange enough time to get to the ossuary, which is in either case a walk of ca. 20 minutes. There are probably busses going there, too, but it’s really not that far. Opening hours and entrance fees can be found on the official website: www.ossuary.eu.
Additional information about the Sedlec Ossuary can be found on Wikipedia.