Lovely Bones: The East Bohemian Bone Church

When I got off the train in a barren-looking town in eastern Bohemia, I was initially alarmed. Communist-era apartment blocks rose to the sky and broken down cars from the ’70s were plopped in front of houses. It wasn’t supposed to look like this.

I was in Kutna Hora (or, more accurately, its neighboring town, Sedlec). Thirty miles east of Prague, this east Bohemian town (and its ugly sibling, Sedlec) has become a fairly common day trip for travelers. But only just recently did it get attention from the mainstream travel press when the New York Times travel section ran an article about it. Gadling, too, has cast its gaze upon this east Bohemian town.

The Czech town’s short brush with wealth came with the discovery of silver, making it for a time in the late-Middle Ages, the mint of Europe. In the process, the wealthy citizens built a massive Gothic cathedral-St. Barbara’s, which could rival any in Europe when it comes to gothic splendor-a network of cobblestone streets, and a number of late-Gothic and Renaissance houses. But that’s not exactly what draws so many people here.

It’s all about the bone church. Lovely bones, in fact. The Church of All Saints Ossuary boasts an interior that’s decorated with the bones of 40,000 human skeletons.

[Flickr photo thanks to CxOxS]

But besides the stark surroundings, the only humans in sight when I stepped off the train were three tracksuit-wearing guys standing on the street in front of the station drinking beer. I asked the one with the smallest mullet if he knew where to find the bone church. Instead of giving me verbal directions or pointing, he began urinating all over the street. His friends roared with laughter. Since there was no one else around to ask, I presumed he was urinating the right direction.

I walked down the lonely tree-lined street, past the Phillip Morris complex of buildings (the largest tobacco factory in Central Europe) and, following a couple signs and zigzagging my way through Sedlec’s underwhelming streets, I was there. After cutting through the cemetery (which surrounds the ossuary), I paid the entrance fee to the hunched over, babushka-clad lady at the door. The first sight inside the church was a row of skulls that formed a gothic arch along the wall in front of me. Below it, a stairway led to the capacious main room. Its centerpiece was a huge chandelier, made up of–you guessed it–bones. In fact, every bone in the human body is represented in the fixture. Eight skulls–each with a femur bone in its mouth–ringed the chandelier where normally the lights might be. Ersatz platters of pelvis bones supported the skulls. Leg bones dangled like fringe. Finger bones stuck out toward the top. Rising up from the ground, four slender pyramids, circling the chandelier, displayed more skulls. On top of the four columns, porcelain, pink-cheeked cherubs looked eternally playful, creating a slightly disturbing contrast between angelic youth and death.

In the four corner chapels, massive 12-foot mounds of carefully stacked bones formed a bell shape. Amazingly, the bones here are not held together by anything. Tunnels, about a foot high, run through the middle of the mounds and lights inside allow you to see how the interlocked the bones are.

Meanwhile, about a dozen people wandered around the nave like zombies, silent except to occasionally whisper things like, “holy shit…”

Which is sort of how all this got started. The year was 1278. An abbot returned from Jerusalem (where he was on a diplomatic mission for King Otakar II of Bohemia) bringing back a sack of holy soil from Golgotha, the supposed site of Christ’s crucifixion. He sprinkled the soil around the cemetery–the one I’d just traipsed through–and soon word spread. Before long, corpses were being delivered from everywhere in Europe, so they could be buried in the soil that came from Golgotha. Then the plague hit. By 1318, there were 30,000 bodies under the ground. Two centuries later, a group of monks began the unenviable task of unearthing the earliest graves to make room for new bodies.

But what to do with all the bones? That’s where a half-blind monk comes in. Put in charge of finding a place for the calcified human remains, he placed them in a room under the church. In 1784 Austrian emperor Franz Joseph II disbanded the monasteries and the church and cemetery fell into the hands of the noble Schwarzenberg family. The bones sat peacefully untouched until 1870, when the family hired a woodcarver, Frantisek Rint, to make a “pleasing arrangement,” as they requested.

Rint went to work, first sterilizing and bleaching the bones and then decorating the church. A few million bones later, the ossuary was complete: rows of skulls, a chandelier, four massive bell-shaped mounds, an anchor, and, in tribute to his employers, a Schwarzenberg coat of arms-all made of bones, all illuminated by the light cast through Gothic windows. Rint had created a macabre masterpiece. He finished by adding his name-in arm and hand bones-on the wall by the stairs.

Afterward I strolled around Kutna Hora, visiting the massive Gothic cathedral and the town’s other attractions. But after the bone church, nothing really compares. Not even the track suit wearing guys, who I saw again later that day at the train station. Feeling that I’d seen enough bones for one day, I tried walking past them quietly where they were now sprawled out on the sidewalk. “Did you find it?” one asked in grossly slurred Czech. I replied simply by nodding my head. “Do you want to know how to get back to Prague?” another one blurted out, after taking a mighty swig of his beer.

As they laughed and laughed, I could hear the train coming. I ran to catch it, satisfied with my visit to Kutna Hora, but fearing for the lost-looking tourists who were just getting off the train.