We had heard of the Bone Church several years ago when we were choosing cities to visit for our honeymoon. But Prague didn’t make the cut that time around (Latvia and Lithuania were calling!) so this time we were eager check it out.
Sedlec Ossuary is actually outside of Prague in a city called Kutná Hora, so we had to take the train to get there. We were a little lost in the Prague train station at first, but quickly found the right counter to buy the tickets, and then found an information attendant who helped explain the two train changes we would have to make. We hadn’t even realized we would have to transfer, so we were glad we asked for clarification! Other than worrying about missing a connection, which though very fast turned out to not to be as confusing as it seemed (just follow the crowd!), the train there took a little over an hour without incident. Well, except for the fact that due to some misinformation we had read online, we stayed on the last train one stop too long (we didn’t follow the crowd!) and had to walk back maybe two miles or so through the little town. Missing our stop all seemed to happen in slow motion. As we watched all the other tourists exit the train, we kinda realized we should probably follow even though it wasn’t what our directions indicated, but in the end we rather enjoy walking through towns and neighborhoods (as long as they seem safe, which this one did), so in the end we didn’t much mind the mistake. And the bonus was that by the time we arrived, most of that gaggle of tourists had already finished and left the church, so we were spared the maddening crowd.
According to my memory of the piece of paper I was handed when we arrived at the ossuary, which I dutifully but distractedly read, back in the 13th century an abbot of the church visited the Holy Land and brought back a handful of earth he had collected in Golgotha which he sprinkled over the cemetery. News of his actions spread, and made the cemetery a highly desirable burial place. Between wars and plague, over the years the cemetery ended up hosting approximately 40,000 bodies. A half-blind monk was originally responsible for stacking the bones in the ossuary (because a pile of bones takes up a lot less space than a pile of coffins, and the cemetery is, at least currently, surprisingly small). Then in the 1800s a woodcarver took over the responsibility of organizing all those piles and things got…interesting.
Massive piles of artfully arranged bones lie in the corners. Some of the bones were used to spell things out on the walls. Skulls were threaded together like popcorn on a Christmas tree and hung across the room. There is a coat of arms depicting a raven picking the eye out of an invading soldier. And magnificently overhead is a chandelier, that reportedly utilized at least one of every bone in the human body. (Because why not make it an artistic challenge?)
Now, I am certain that all the decorating was done with utmost respect, and that piece of paper we were handed when we came in told us that it was all done using deep symbolism to reflect the beliefs and values of the church. This symbolism has since become obscured by time though, and now, frankly, it is difficult not to see it as a pirate lair. Wax candles dripping over skulls, coins tossed by tourists sitting in the eye sockets, dusty cobwebs covering everything. I couldn’t help but think of One-Eyed Willie and The Goonies. (I intend no disrespect to those who worship here, and humbly beg forgiveness. But judging by all the people taking photos, I’m clearly not the only person to think this.)
We were enthralled and wandered around for far longer than any of the other tourists. To be sure, however weird or creepy (or awesome), it definitely had a reverential vibe. All these bones used to be living people! Some of the bones showed signs of the injuries they had died from in the wars – axes to the head and such. I may have been gawking with wide eyes, but it was also very humbling.
They used to hold church services underneath the chandelier, but moved upstairs to a surprisingly plain chapel, probably in part to escape the hordes of camera-happy tourists they make so much money from. I generally feel weird being a tourist inside an active place of worship, but this was just so amazing I left my reluctance at the door and just soaked it all in. David was soaking it in so much he even set off a beeping alarm for getting too close to a pile of skulls with his camera. Oops!
After walking around the cemetery outside (people are still getting buried here), we realized we had some more time before our train back. So we walked BACK across town again to the other far side to see another, more traditional and enormous church. It was worth the walk, up on a hill with a lovely view, and the downtown area itself was stereotypically picturesque with shops along narrow cobblestone streets. The day itself was just gorgeous, bright and sunny. I also enjoyed this statue, which seems to be holding a painting, something I’ve never seen before in a statue. Is this some form of early arts advocacy? Yay, nameless artist!
We then had to cross town a third time to get back to the main train station, since I was unwilling to trust the small connecting train would be on time and the published connection time was only four minutes. (Even though we now knew where the stop was!) We must have walked close to 3 miles in about 40 minutes, which is an extremely good pace, even for us. But we made it, albeit a little sweaty. It was a very good, memorable day. Getting to see and experience things like this is exactly why I like to travel.
*DISCLAIMER* I often have no idea what I am talking about. When I’m sharing the things I saw or did or heard, please do not assume that I have done much (or any) research about those things. Sometimes when I relate stories it is less about listing true facts about the thing and more about sharing my own experience of the thing. Which may or may not have been related to the facts. Unless of course someone (or Wikipedia) told me the facts and A) I found the facts interesting enough to remember and B) they weren’t just lying for the sake of the story. (Hint: tour guides can lie, and Wikipedia can be wrong.) I won’t knowingly lie about stuff (probably) but I’m not fact-checking everything I say either.
Please share with others who might appreciate reading this, and don’t forget to leave your own observations/stories/fact checking in the comments below!
All photos by Robb Hillman and David McMullin