Twisting my neck in all directions possible, I looked up at the small church’s chandelier trying to analyze every piece of it. I could see a few skulls, a femur or two, and… Wait was that a spine?
“At least one of every bone in the human body can be found in that chandelier,” my tour guide said with a slightly disgusted look on her face. Maybe she was just playing up her reaction for the crowd. Or maybe the sight of a chandelier made with real human bones is just not something you get used to.
Either way, I suddenly felt a chill through all 206 of my bones.
A few days earlier when my weary feet had reached Prague, I was “all churched out” as a friend of mine once put it. In layman’s terms, that means I was done visiting churches. Traveling in Europe will do that to you. You see so many religious buildings that they all start to blend together in your mind except for a few that stand out for whatever reason.
So in Prague, I told myself that I would be perfectly content with just seeing a few churches from the outside. That was until I heard about the Bone Church in Kutná Hora, a small chapel decorated almost entirely with the bones of over 40,000 people. Morbid? Yes. But totally unique? Absolutely.
The small town of Kutná Hora is only a short train ride away from Prague, making a half-day trip to the Bone Church not only feasible but also very easy to do. Getting off the train in Kutná Hora, my tour group and I were met with a scene that looked like the beginning of a decent horror film: a tiny train station in the middle of nowhere with just a few rundown buildings as neighbors. They were probably factories once upon a time, but now with their broken windows and weed-field yards, they were condemned to slowly fall apart. The scene was a fitting welcome considering where we were going.
“If I didn’t already trust you, I’d think you were leading us to our deaths,” one of my fellow travelers said jokingly. “Don’t worry,” replied our apparently quick-witted guide. “ The chapel already has enough bones in it.”
And she certainly was not kidding nor exaggerating with that statement. There is some debate as to the exact number of bodies that were used to decorate the chapel, but estimates go from a minimum of 40,000 corpses to a maximum of 60,000. No matter which way you cut it, that’s a lot of bodies, and the chapel does not hesitate to put those bones on display right from the entrance.
Walking down the stairs and through the archway that lead into the church, the first thing that greets you is a cross and two chalices all made out of human bones. At the bottom the stairs, two perfectly stacked piles with too many bones to count lead the way to the main area of the church. On the top of each pile sits a crown. Our guide explained that the bones with the crown were meant to be symbolic of the Christian belief that followers of the religion would “conquer” death and have eternal life. I guess not everything about the place was totally morbid.
Leaving the large piles of bones behind us, we walked ahead and into the main foyer. The room opened up, and that’s where we saw not only the chandelier but also the pillars of bones with angels on top, the hanging banners of skulls that swept across the ceiling, more crosses and figurines made with bones, and the coat of arms of the family who commissioned the artist that decorated the chapel. It too, of course, was made entirely of bones.
I have seen many churches throughout my travels, but none like this. Although the idea of using real human bones to decorate a chapel is undeniably creepy, I couldn’t help but admire the artistry, skill and vision it took to do it. Skulls, pelvic bones and vertebrate aren’t exactly the most common medium when it comes to artwork. Putting them all together while staying true to the symbolic themes the town’s Catholic Church wanted to portray could not have been an easy task.
The church intended for the chapel to show people the fragility of life. It was a call for people to change their lives and be better Christians because any day could be their last. Built in a time when people died from seemingly simple health issues and later on from the Black Plague, I’m sure the Bone Church got its message across.
So where did all of these bones come from in the first place? Well, that’s actually probably the most interesting part of the Bone Church’s long history.
Kutná Hora and Sedlec, the specific suburb where the Bone Church is located, may small, sleepy towns now, but in the 13th century they were large, financially booming cities thanks to a monk from the local church who accidentally discovered silver there. Silver mines were opened, and the town became rich. With the newly found riches, the King of Bohemia decided to use that surplus in 1278 to send a monk from Sedlec’s monastery to Jerusalem.
When the monk returned with a jar of soil from the city and sprinkled it all over the church’s graveyard, people began to believe that being buried there was akin to being laid to rest in the Holy Land itself. The church told the people that being buried in their graveyard (for a certain price of course) would guarantee direct entrance into heaven without having to wait in purgatory.
Word spread quickly and before long people came from all over Central Europe to bury their loved ones in that specific graveyard. Although the graveyard was expanded twice, the waiting list to be buried there was so long that the church had to come up with a solution.
The church’s new story became that a burial in that Holy Land graveyard not only meant no purgatory, but it also meant that your body would decompose in just three days. And with that, centuries-old skeletons were exhumed to make room for a constant rotation of new bodies.
All of the bones were stored in the church’s ossuary until the year 1870 when the Schwarzenberg family, who owned the land where the church sat, paid an artist to transform the ossuary into the Bone Church we see today.
Nowadays, the Bone Church, or Sedlec Ossuary as it is officially called, is only opened for tourism purposes. It is Kutná Hora’s biggest claim to fame, but as my tour group and I later discovered, once you get past the ominous looking train station and the creepy but artistic Bone Church, the town was actually quite charming and had some restaurants with extremely delicious traditional Czech food. Its developmental boom thanks to the silver industry also definitely left its mark on the town with other beautiful churches and buildings to be seen and interesting stories to be told.
So no matter how “churched out” you may be or how morbid you may think this place is, if you visit Prague, which just so happens to be one of my favorite cities in Europe, then make your way out to Kutná Hora to see something a little different than your average chapel.