We had dreamed and discussed a trip to what Veronica happily calls “The Motherland” for a long, long time.
A recent trip to Europe finally afforded us that opportunity. In our little rented car that we named Benny, we tooled into the Czech Republic with almost no idea what to expect.
Actually, it would be impossible for anyone to expect what we found in the little town of Sedlec — an ancient chapel that came with a very disturbing secret.
It had been used as an ossuary, or mass burial site. Strange, yet not completely out of the ordinary.
But inside the walls of this seemingly peaceful little church is a gallery so ghastly, it must be seen to be believed.
We had heard stories about this place, but words — nor pictures — can begin to explain what it was like walking through the doors.
Human bones from tens of thousands of people adorn the walls and ceiling, in inexplicable formations.
Strings of skulls and femurs of the dearly departed hang like garlands over the arches and doorways.
Stacks, pyramids, signs, crucifixes, candelabras and a coat of arms surrounded us, all made from the skeletons of the long deceased.
We — and every other visitor present — simply gaped in amazement.
Then we noticed the creepy centerpiece of this macabre masterpiece, a massive chandelier containing at least one of every bone in the human body.
It’s hard to say how long we stood staring, time seemed to come to a grinding halt inside the tomb.
What would make someone conceive of such a grizzly undertaking? The tale takes us back to the 1200s:
Before the church became an ossuary, there was a conventional cemetery outside.
In the 13th century, the abbot of Sedlec, Henry Heidenrich, brought back some dirt from Golgotha (the hill where Jesus Christ was crucified) he acquired on a pilgrimage to The Holy Land and sprinkled it over the cemetery.
Suddenly the cemetery became the place to be buried if you lived in Bohemia.
Making the idea of this spot as a final resting place even sweeter, a legend arose that if one was buried here their remains would decompose in just three days.
Who wouldn’t want to avoid – as the ossuary’s literature puts it – “the lengthy process of gradual decomposition?” Soon all of Central Europe wanted in on the action.
When the plague of the 14th century hit, the burial ground had to be significantly enlarged.
In 1318 alone, thirty thousand people were buried in the cemetery.
Around this time the chapel became an ossuary, but was heavily damaged in 1421 during the Hussite Wars. In 1511, large areas of the graveyard were decommissioned and bones from those graves were stacked in and around the ossuary.
By the time renown architect Jan Blažej Santini-Aichl was commissioned to restore the ossuary, in the early 1700s, tens of thousands of souls had been laid to rest in it.
Santini’s unique mixture of the Gothic and Baroque styles were employed in the redesign and stand today.
Although a bit of bone decorating was going on prior to this, Santini kicked it into high gear. Using the hodgepodge of bones laying around, he constructed six enormous pyramids and affixed golden crowns atop them.
The visitors guide states that the decor “may not be quite intelligible nowadays. We might be mistaken when considering the Ossuary’s decoration as mere bizarreness. It makes deep sense in the context of the stirred baroque piety.”
Baroque piety or not, this seems to be the only place where people thought it made any, much less deep, sense.
In the late 1700s the ossuary was sold to the Schwarzenburg family who decided to turn woodcarver František Rint loose inside.
Using two of the six pyramids, he constructed the highly disturbing Schwarzenburg coat of arms. The “leftover” bones were reburied.
It is Rint’s work that struck us speechless.
There’s a bird (whose wing looks as though it may be made out of a hand or foot) pecking the eye of a Turkish soldier, symbolizing a war victory.
Rint even “signed” his name in bones on a wall, for a little added flair.
Nearly as bizarre as the ossuary’s decor, is way the literature is worded. Someone seems to have turned somersaults justifying the ossuary’s unique ornamentation:
“It’s guessed that the Ossuary is a common grave of about 40,000 people.
This work reminds us of the fact and the worth of eternity. God has concluded a covenant that puts us under an obligation to responsibility towards God and our neighbors.
The observance of the covenant will be appreciated when we die.”
What? Well this should clear things up:
“In the corners of the lower chapel your attention can be caught by giant pyramids made of bones.
These bones are stowed up without being bound together.
The human bones represent multitudes which none can count facing the God’s throne.”
Or maybe not.
It was time to get out, there’s only so much time we could comfortably spend in a grave.
We were having a strange feeling of desecration gnawing at the back of our minds.
Should busloads of tourists really be tromping through this tomb? The measure of respect for the dead seemed to be fairly lost in the crowd, not to mention the cheesy skull trinkets and souvenirs offered on the way out.
Ah yes, some things remain the same throughout our travels…
Exit through the gift shop.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com