Most of us would have seen churches and been inside at least a few them. There are churches plain and simple in far-flung towns and villages, there are churches known for their splendid architecture and ornate decors, and there are churches known for their world’s most precious artefacts. But ever heard or seen a church decorated with… a mind-boggling 40000 odd bones and skulls?
While looking for off-the-track places for a day trip from Prague during our recent visit, we came across the strangely titled “Bone Church” in a town called Kutna Hora. Our Lonely Planet’s Prague guide had a page on it and a simple Google search also threw in several links. So off we went to explore.
An hour’s train journey from Prague central train station, Kutna Hora is small, sleepy, laid back, typical East European town, with its own history and landmarks behind. And most important of them is the “Bone Church” or the Sedlec Ossuary as it is known locally.
The church is barely 300 meters from the unmanned Kutna Hora – Sedlec station, past St John’s church- a signpost directs visitors. The streets are practically empty with an occasional car passing by or a human being in sight. The “Bone Church” is in the middle of a cemetery and is fairly small. As we entered the gates of the cemetery, we could see a few people (like us) wanting to explore the unique church.
At the entrance is a reception desk with a lady issuing tickets with a customary smile. Our curiosity began right at the reception area where the walls and the roof were adorned with … skulls and bones ….in all sorts of creative designs. A flight of steps led us to the basement were two chambers on the left and right with heaps of skulls compiled into pyramid shape welcomed us! We walked further down to the main hall or chamber and you are surrounded by even more bones and skulls arranged creatively in to lamp poles, bells, chandeliers and even a royal insignia. The chamber is lit by few dull lamps and faint rays of sunlight coming from two small side-windows adding to our eerie feelings and spooky atmosphere. The main altar is actually small: a dark alcove with a Cross in the middle surrounded by …. again skulls and bones.
We came out and went upstairs where, much to our relief, there were less bones and skulls and it was brightly lit with an array of photos of the church’s various stages over the years.
A handy flier given out along with the entrance ticket describes the history of the church. The Ossuary contains the bones of about 40,000 people, who died in the 1318 plague in and during the Hussite wars in the 15th century and were originally buried at the church cemetery. When the cemetery was closed at the end of the 15th century, the exhumed bones were transferred to the chapel and compiled into pyramids. In 1870, a wood carver/ carpenter named František Rint was commissioned by the local royalty to arrange the bones and skulls into creative decorations.
On our way back we stopped for a coffee (actually to get out of that grim experience). We were wondering why would anyone want to preserve the remains of the dead and the old lady at the coffee shop answered, “we believe that these people are not dead but live among us and the church reminds us every day of this belief.”
Call it unique, macabre, eerie, creepy or spooky but a visit to the church is an experience you will never forget.
Just then I remembered a website I browsed, where a visitor said he asked the lady at the desk if she ever felt bothered to be working there. She flipped her hand in a dismissive way and said “Pfft! They’re only bones, they won’t hurt you; it’s the living who scare me”.