Did you know that there is such as thing as Dark Tourism? This is people who go to visit places that have connections with death and/or suffering. I would say that I verge into Dark Tourism quite often; but it is rarely just to say that I have been to that place, it is more to try and get an understanding of what has happened there and the ongoing impacts of that. For some, they visit just with the intent of grabbing a selfie with something morbid, but for others their photography serves as an anthropological diary of the changes that happen to these places over time.
If you have been following me around on Instagram, you will know that I recently visited Prague. Tucked away in a little village of Kutna Hora is the Sedlec Ossuary, or “The Bone Church” as it is probably better known as.
This place is incredible. It has been decorated with the bones of 40-60,000 people. Initially this may sound rather macabre, and I guess it is, but when you are inside, it doesn’t feel that way. This could be due to the unusual way that this church became this way.
The story of this amazing place starts in 1278. Henry, the abbot of the Cistercian Monastery was sent to the Holy Land by King Otakar II. Henry obviously travelled around, gaining knowledge to bring back to Kutna Hora. When he returned (and I am telling you the story here as it was told to me) the monks gathered around Henry and asked him what he had bought back from his travels. I expect that the monks were hoping for some form of relic, but instead, cool as a cucumber, Henry pulled out of a bag some soil. Henry then told them that he could not take them to the Holy Land so he bought it to them. He then promptly sprinkled the soil around the perimeter of the abbey (as it was at the time). This then meant that there was a little piece of the Holy Land in Bohemia, and made it a prime location to be buried… because if you can’t be buried in the Holy Land, this was the next best thing.
During the 14th and 15th century many bodies were buried here due to plague and the Hussite wars. The cemetery around the abby grew. At some point in the 1400’s (the figures start to get a bit hazy), the small gothic church was built on the grounds. It was fairly simple in nature, but it had an upper level for worship and a lower level to be used as an ossuary, as many of the graves around the site had been dug up for the construction, and to make room for more graves.
In the early 1500s a half blind monk decided to make four pyramids of the bones, in hope that God would see them and grant him his sight back. Considering that the guy was half blind and he would have been working in pretty dark and unsavoury conditions, he did a pretty awesome job…
The story goes that God did indeed grant him back his sight as he finished the last pyramid… Ok so this picture wasn’t from the 1500s and the pyramids have been stabilised since, but the fact that they still remain and are on the most untouched is pretty impressive.
The church then functioned for around 200 years with nothing much going on. Then in the early 1700s a new entrance was built for the church, and the upper level was rebuilt. This was done in the Baroque style by Jan Santini Aichel. This does now make the church look less remarkable from the outside, and while I was visiting more renovations were underway, which meant the entrance was covered, obscuring the architecture.
What I did notice, was that the weather vanes on the spires where golden skulls though – which indicated the now ornate structures which reside within.
In 1870, Frantisek Rint, a woodcarver was asked to come and order the bones, and this is where the craziness beginning (as if making bone pyramids wasn’t crazy). Rint went a step beyond just ordering the bones. Initially it was thought that he only did this with his wife and child, but later theories seem to indicate that he worked on this with a team of about 30 people, considering how quickly he managed to create the inside of the Ossuary now.
Rint took to creating great chains of skulls, a huge chandelier, coat or arms and wall decorations all made of the remaining skeletons which were in the Ossuary. The end result is impressive.
Rint even signed his work (so to speak) with his signature created on one wall.
Since then the Ossuary has been left with this fascinating decoration, although additions have crept in. Glass cabinets with “interesting” skulls now reside within, showing skulls that have had wounds which have either killed them or started to heal before death, and a skull where the bone stopped growing but the brain didn’t. Making for a really interesting visit, should you chose to go here.
One thing to note… you are now no longer allowed to take photos of the Ossuary. This changed at the start of 2020, and has been said to have been put in place to reserve the dignity of the bones within…(personally I think this is rot, as on their website they state that you can purchase a licence prior to visit, but you need to apply 3 days before hand, so I think that this is just a way to get some extra cash… but that is the religious cynic in me). So, if like me you want to go to take photos of this place, you are likely to be disappointed. On busy days staff patrol the room, getting a bit uppity even if you just have a phone in your hand.
Despite this, I would highly recommend seeing this amazing place as photos simply don’t do it justice. It is calm here and there is an air of artistic intent.
Have you been to The Bone Church? Why not tell me what you thought in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?