The Sedlec Ossuary in Kutná Hora, more commonly known as the “Bone Church,” is one of the Czech Republic’s most visited tourist destinations. It makes a lot of sense: where else can you find a Roman Catholic chapel decorated with skeletons?
The History of the Bone Church
The Bone Church began as a cemetery in the 1100s. Kutná Hora was a rich mining town with many dying in the mines.
It first became popular in the late 1200s, because an abbot sprinkled dirt from the Holy Land around the cemetery. Sedlec quickly became a desirable final resting place for people across Central Europe. Apparently dirt from the Holy Land was the “it” thing for your grave in the 13th century.
The cemetery grew exponentially during the Black Death and the Hussite wars that decimated Central Europe’s population.
In the 1400s, a Gothic church with an ossuary was constructed within the cemetery. An ossuary is the box or site used to store skeletal remains. They often house multiple individuals to save space.
The new Sedlec Ossuary was created because they needed room in the cemetery to bury new bodies.
Legend has it that in 1511 a half-blind monk was given the task of exhuming and sorting the skeletal remains.
In 1870, the Schwarzenberg family who owned the land, commissioned František Rint, a woodworker, to order the bones. This is when the Bone Church finally earned its name.
Rint used the estimated 40 to 70,000 skeletons to create a chilling
display that now draws over 200,000 visitors a year.
Bones decorate the entire chapel: from the entrance to the archways to
the ceilings. He constructed four large altars by stacking bones. They are each topped with a large golden crown and embellished with human skulls. He designed a skeletal version of the crest of his patrons, the Schwarzenberg’s. It is almost as tall as the altars. A person seems to be emerging from the crest with a bird on his shoulder.
Rint even signed his masterpiece with a signature made entirely of bones.
The Bone Church’s crowning glory is the chandelier in the middle of the ossuary. It is said to contain every bone in the human body. The candles meant to light the room rest atop human skulls with cavernous eyes.
The chandelier is surrounded by four columns stacked with human skulls. They are topped with Catholic cherubs, serenely playing their instruments as though they aren’t sitting on top half a dozen skulls.
The Bone Church is inside of a still functioning cemetery. People visit their ancestors while thousands of visitors flock to the chapel to count the bones in the chandelier.
My Visit to the Bone Church
Most people call the Bone Church “macabre.” I found a haunting beauty in exploring the small chapel. Every bone was precisely placed, achieving an unsettling symmetry.
It is definitely the most unusual Roman Catholic building I have ever seen.
You enter the chapel by heading down a set of stairs, passing chalices built of pelvises and skulls with your first steps.
The underground chapel was almost as cold as outside. It was dim with a golden glow from the lights. Although it was crowded, it wasn’t hard to move. There was a steady flow of people from one altar to the next. The flash of cameras and voice of guides didn’t break the surprising tranquility of the Bone Church.
I’m very superstitious and terrified of basically everything. Usually that would extend to human bones, but, oddly, I wasn’t scared.
The chandelier was captivating. I stood beneath it for at least ten minutes, counting teeth still stuck in the skulls. My friend and I tried to find every human bone within the chandelier, but we couldn’t spot them all.
Granted, she did most of the spotting. My anatomy knowledge is basically limited to heads, shoulders, knees and toes.
I kept wondering about the bones we were marvelling at. Were any of them ghosts? (I really didn’t want to be haunted.) And why had Rint decided that this was the best way to organize bones? Surely, stacking them in boxes would have been more efficient.
Whatever his reasoning, I’m sort of glad. Without Rint, we wouldn’t have the Bone Church – my favourite spot in the Czech Republic.
Getting to the Bone Church
Kutná Hora and the Bone Church are located just over an hour outside of Prague. Touring the chapel doesn’t take more than an hour, even with a guide.
The entrance fee is 90 CZK for adults or 60 CZK for students/children.
The town of Kutná Hora is well-known for the late gothic St. Barbara’s Cathedral and is home to a 400 year old restaurant that are worth a visit.
You can find your own way there or take one of the many guided tours offered. I took Sandeman’s New Europe Day Trip to Kutná Hora. The tour costs 30 Euros for adults, 26 euros for students. It included additional sites in the city of Kutná Hora, but they paled in comparison to the Bone Church.
On your next trip to the Czech Republic, make time to visit the Bone Church in Kutná Hora. I can’t promise you will love it like I did, but it will certainly be an experience you won’t forget.