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Skeletal shrines

The Bone Church near Kutná Hora is an attraction, but it isn't alone


Posted: October 14, 2009

By Paul Koudounaris - For the Post | Comments (1) | Post comment

Skeletal shrines

Courtesy Photo

The eerie end of a tunnel at a Brno ossuary.

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David Hahn and his wife were visiting the Czech Republic from Chicago.

"The Bone Church in Sedlec, near Kutná Hora, was definitely on our agenda," he says. "We saw pictures in a guide and thought, 'We have to go there. It's so unique.' We went with a group tour, and afterward thought, 'We'll certainly never see anything like that again.' "

They were wrong.

"The very next day, we were in Mělník. We went down a staircase at the side of the church, and, lo and behold, we were in another room full of bones," Hahn said. "So much for never seeing anything like that again!"

Indeed, the Hahns had learned that, while the Bone Church, or ossuary, is world-famous, there remains a litany of others. While the site in Sedlec receives hundreds of visitors a day, the others get a mere trickle - often, they are virtually unknown even to locals.

Mělník

The ossuary at Mělník (open daily except Mondays; cost 30 Kč) contains the bones of up to 15,000 people, arranged along the walls of an old crypt beneath the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. Skulls are used to create patterns and spell out words - including large letters reading "Ecce Mors," or "Behold Death." The mastermind of the Mělník charnel house was professor Jindřich Matiegka. One of the fathers of Czech anthropology, Matiegka had spent considerable time at the turn of the 20th century studying ossuaries; eventually, in the 1910s, he decided to build his own with a pile of old bones stored under the Mělník church.

Befitting the work of a scholar, there is a literate theology underlying the arrangement. Matiegka envisioned the bones as the hill of Calvary. Standing atop the mass is a large cross composed of bones and marked with a palm frond, representing the empty cross after Christ's martyrdom. Beneath it is the room's most notable feature: a long, deep tunnel primarily constructed of leg bones. The tunnel symbolizes Christ's empty tomb, and Matiegka's message to the visitor was that the savior's sacrifice and resurrection has provided a path for all of us to overcome the death that we behold here.

Moravia

There are similar churches in Moravia that contain notable rooms of arranged bones. In Mikulov, in the heart of wine-making country, visitors to an old crypt under St. Wenceslas' Church are greeted by an enormous wall of bones (open daily in the summer, otherwise by arrangement; entry 20 Kč). The room originally served as the 17th-century tomb of Václav Vilém Popel Lobkowitz and his wife, Markéta Františka. In 1870, the cemetery in the center of town was cleared on the orders of Josef II, and the remains of 2,000 people were used to build a monumental wall behind the two caskets, providing the room with a new and overwhelming presence.

The ossuary at the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Křtiny is considerably smaller, but it contains its own special attraction (it can be visited by arrangement with the church). Several hundred skulls were discovered in 1991 on the site of the old burial grounds. The remains were arranged behind grates in a brick-lined vault under the church; noteworthy here are the only examples of painted skulls found in the Czech Republic. The practice of disinterring skulls and painting them with decorative designs is mostly associated with town of Hallstatt, Austria. But, at Křtiny, five skulls are painted with crowns of leaves, some bearing initials. The skulls may represent a family group, perhaps people who were originally from Tyrol and decided to continue their local tradition.

The largest ossuary in the Czech Republic - perhaps the largest in all of Europe other than the Paris Catacombs - is also in Moravia. In 2001, archeological research conducted prior to renovations of Jakubské náměstí in Brno uncovered a medieval charnel containing the remains of more than 50,000 people. The discovery revealed a series of masonry passages filled with bones leading from Sv. Jakuba Church toward the square. The original arrangement of the bones is unknown since they had toppled and become covered in mud, but an archeological team has since been working to dig out and rearrange the bones, based on designs typical of those found in other church ossuaries. While the work has periodically faltered through a lack of funding, their results are impressive; the site is currently difficult to visit, but it is hoped that it can be opened to the general public within the next two years.

The near abroad

If visitors with a morbid curiosity are looking for further inspiration, they need only take a few quick trips over the nearby borders. One of the most impressive bone chapels in Europe is found in Kudowa-Zdrój, Poland. In the 18th century, when the town was called Chudova and administered by the Bohemian parish of Nachod, a local priest began decorating a small chapel with skulls and long bones. His creation, the Kaplica Czaszek, or Skull Chapel, features 3,000 skulls on display and more than 20,000 more in a vault beneath the floorboards.

Meanwhile, the Basilica of Waldsassen, Germany, just west of Cheb, contains a series of full skeletal reliquaries. A dozen skeletons taken from the Roman catacombs cavort along the side aisles - standing, reclining, even raising a toast - all wearing beautiful hand-crafted costumes from the 18th century.

Mummies

Sightseers who want a little meat on their bones won't be disappointed either, since Czech churches also contain two major collections of mummies, both of which are open to the public. Preserved in climate-controlled conditions under the Jesuit Church in Klatovy are 37 of originally 200-plus mummies, dehydrated between 1676 and 1783 using hops as antiseptic and an ingenious system of ventilation ducts.

There is a larger collection in Brno. The Capuchin monastery there contains a series of crypts that hold the preserved remains of nobles, benefactors and even 24 of the convent's own brethren.

The Hahns visited the mummies in Brno a few days after their trip to the Mělník ossuary. They also wound up visiting the Skull Chapel in Kudowa-Zdrój.

"When we realized there were so many of these types of places, we started seeking them out," Hahn said. "We loved the Bone Church at Sedlec, but it was so crowded that it seemed artificial - like it was really just for tourists. With these other sites, there is no hoopla, and they somehow seem more real, more immediate."


Paul Koudounaris can be reached at
features@praguepost.com


Tags: Kutna hora, ossuary, Sedlec, bone church, Melnik.


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