Deep in the south of Czech Bohemia in the town of Kutna Hora lies a small church. To all outward appearances, the 13th Century Gothic church is unremarkable. It is plain. There is a little cemetery out the front. In the springtime there are flowers adorning the graves.
The little chapel is wholly unlike it's neighbor the Church of Saint Barbara, which was also commenced in the 13th Century but with all the pomp and wealth attributed to the silver industry of it's home town - a magnificent building that would cause even distracted busy Australian families to screech to a halt and wander the grounds in awe.
No, the small and nondescript building will not have you driving past and exclaiming in amazement, but the underbelly of the little Catholic church in the Czech Republic holds the contents to your dreams or your nightmares, depending on your particular taste. If your taste holds sway towards the macabre, then you are in for a treat. Decorations like no other in the world, a hidden nightmarish room full of over 50,000 human skeletons arranged into fantastical displays. Shrines and monuments, a chandelier made of every bone of the human body, and garlands of human skulls weave overhead the wary visitor, smiling their welcome.
Enter if you dare.
Once upon a time in the beginning of the 13th Century, an Abbot was sent to Jerusalem on a diplomatic mission. On his way out, Abbot Henry grabbed a handful of dirt from Golgotha, the dying place of Jesus, and when he returned home, he sprinkled it across his hometown cemetery floor. This little bit of pious dust thus secured the Sedlec Cemetery as the place to be buried, no self respecting dying Christian would wish for anything less. However, the popularity of the place combined with later wars and the Black Death meant that there was simply not enough room for everyone in the coolest grave plot in the land. And so an ossuary was built to house the bones of those who'd had their turn being buried in the holy soil, and to make room for those next in line.
In the beginning of the 16th Century, the arduous task of exhuming those skeletons with a used-by-date was given to a half-blind monk, who unfortunately but understandably, did a bit of a shoddy job. In the 1700's, a new entrance had to be constructed to support the front wall which was beginning to lean outward because of all of the many skeletons bursting it's seams.
Finally in 1870 a talented woodcarver was employed by a local family to put all those messy unruly bones into some semblance of order. He bleached each and every tibia, femur and smiling skull and arranged them as artistically as he could. If you've got to do a job, you might as well do it as best you can...right?
The family who had commissioned his work received a Coat of Arms as a thank you present. A Coat of Arms made of human bones, complete with a bone raven pecking at the severed head of a Turk.
In the center of the Sedlec Ossuary is a massive chandelier which contains at least one of every bone of the human body.
But if this particular arrangement feels a little creepy, undoubtedly the cheerful garlands of human skulls zigzagging across the ceiling are arranged to lift your spirits. The upward peaks of each string are decorated with artful florets of hip bones with delicate dangling fingers. Kind of like a Christmas tree...?
Possibly this helps to distract from the two crypts full of stacked skulls nestled in neat piles of thigh bones...perhaps not.
Whether this artistic display delights or repulses you may be indicative of character or inherent twisted-ness? Would your reaction be scared, humbled or gleeful? As for the Gilberts, we were on both sides of the spectrum. Some found it all a bit abhorrent, scary, creepy.
Others, (and I'm not naming names...ok fine, it was me) found it all exciting and weirdly magical. Would I like to be a part of a cheerful skull garland when I am dead?
I would chomp down on my bleached humerus and find it all oh so humorous, as the living walked beneath me looking more than a little freaked out by my empty eye sockets staring through their souls.
No matter your reaction to the unique hidden treasury tucked away in Southern Bohemia, certainly we can all agree that the world is full of mystery and wonder, and also, very talented woodcarvers.
The Sedlec Ossuary is only about an hour from Prague! Here is a very helpful website to help you figure all of that out.
You can definitely see both the Ossuary and Saint Barbara's church on the same day as they are both in Kutna Hora. We literally were driving past Saint Barbara's church and screeched to a halt. We braved the freezing cold and were glad that we did so, it is one of the loveliest churches I have ever seen, and some of the most beautiful stained glass windows in Europe.
However, beware, if you chance to drop a nice thinsulate glove on the grounds outside as you wander and gawk, glove thieves abound and you may never see it again.
Before we braved the dead, we fueled up on some lovely traditional Czech food in a local eatery. The restaurant Dacicky is wonderfully atmospheric and child friendly. All of the food was covered in gravy and was delicious...except the wild boar goulash with the gingerbread dumplings, they were just weird.