We’ve been to hundreds of cathedrals, basilicas, churches, and unique wooden folk churches throughout Europe’s wilderness. Our trips have taken us to some of Europe and Israel’s most stunning Christian sites. So, we were eager to visit the unique “The Bone Church” in Kutna Hora, a small town in the Czech Republic. You know you are in for an adventure when you encounter a church with a skull and crossbones on its steeple.
Known as The Ossuary in Sedlec, the Bone church is located in the lower level of the Church of All Saints, built in the late 1300s. The lower level of the church is “adorned” with the bones of 40,000 persons. A woodcarver, Frantisek Rinto, was the artist who fashioned these exceptional decorations in the 19th century into a chandelier, candelabra, coat of arms, etc.
The church’s exterior and surrounding graveyard are not overly impressive and remind you of many Gothic-style European churches. The fresh graves reminds the visitor that this is an active Roman Catholic church.
The Ossuary’s history and interior make the site one of the most visited destinations in the Czech Republic. It is a favorite day trip by train for visitors from Prague.
A Cistercian monastery was founded in Sedlec in 1142 in the present-day outskirts of Kutna Hora. During the 12th century, silver deposits were discovered by a monk, and the monastery became the economic and cultural center of the area. Kutna Hora was one of the wealthiest towns in the land, second only to Prague in importance.
In 1278, the Abbot of Sedlec Monastery, Heidenreich, is said to have brought soil back from the area of Golgotha in Jerusalem and spread it over the cemetery. Thousands of people from all over Europe requested their burial in this cemetery as it was special “Holy Ground.” Likely, the superstitious people of that time thought they were closer to Heaven if this cemetery was their final resting place.
The monastery chronicles state that 30,000 bodies were buried in the cemetery during the great plague in 1318. The Sedlec Monastery was burned down during the Hussite Wars in 1421. The rich monastery was capable of funding both the rebuilding of the Church of All Saints and the nearby Convent Church of the Virgin Mary.
The bones of perhaps 70,000 bodies began to pile up and were at first placed around the church grounds. They were later housed in the lower level of the Church of All Saints. The chapel was on the second floor. In 1511, a half-blind monk piled the bones into pyramids. In 1661, the bones were rearranged, and the collapsed vaulting was replaced by a new structure.
In the 18th century, Jan Santini Aichl reconstructed the lower chapel and modified the interior, including designs for decorations made of bones and other accessories, into a style called “Baroque Gothic.” This appears to be the first time the bones were used as decorations.
Josef II abolished the Sedlec Monastery in 1784, and the Schwarzenberg family purchased it. They had the Ossuary reconstructed in the present form. Woodcarver Frantisek Rint was the artist who fashioned the bones into the artwork we see today. He and two family members disinfected and bleached all the bones with chlorinated lime.
The ingeniously creative artwork overwhelms the senses with a macabre atmosphere as you enter the dark, chilly ossuary. The chandelier, containing at least one of every human bone found in the human body, is the focal point in the Ossuary. Candelabra shaped like a little Gothic Tower, a bone chalice and monstrance, bone garlands, and other random bone masterpieces grace the interior walls. Four large pyramids of bones are loosely arranged in wooden structures without any fixed binding.
Another impressive artwork is the coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family, which is also made of human bones. Commissioned by his patrons, Rint artistically reinterpreted the original family coat of arms out of bones. The first thing people usually notice is the raven pecking out the eye of a skull. This macabre scene relates to the Turkish War, commemorating the conquest of the Turkish-held fortress of Győr in 1598. This fortress was also known as Raab, “raven” in German. If you look closely, you will notice that the skull has a “ponytail” that imitates the typical Turkish hairstyle of that period.
Another part of the coat of arms is the rounded crown, representing the prince title given to the Schwarzenbergs in 1670. Rint included the intricate bottom band of the crown made of sacral bones, two rounded designs of pelvic bones with skulls in the centers to make the shape of the crown and a cross made of long bones at the top. The crown is outlined with ball joint femur bones and completed at the bottom with a fringe made of rib bones.
Hiding in the top center portion, a crowned lion rampart stands on two paws, three flying alerions, and an upright standing sword. The Prince of Schwarzenberg was granted the right to represent these three-part arms of the Habsburg family their coat of arms by Austrian Emperor Franz II.
One of the most familiar pieces of art for any church is the crucifix in the photo below.
Christians can meditate on the symbolism of the Ossuary and its decorations. Their purpose is not to celebrate or worship death but to spread the Christian idea of the equality of all people before God.
The phrase “Memento Mori” represents the church’s people and past. “Remember that you will die.” In other words, the bones warn us, “What we are, you will become, and what you are, we once were.”
How to visit Kutna Hora
The towns of Sedlec and Kutna Hora are an hour’s train ride from Prague’s main station (Praha hl.n). Purchase a ticket to Sedlec, not Kutna Hora. This will allow you to disembark the train in Kutna Hora hl.n and transfer over to the small regional train that services Sedlec and the town of Kutna Hora. Get off at Sedlec and follow the easy signs to town. Go to the information center on the left side of the street and purchase the tickets for the Ossuary. They don’t sell them at the church.
We went to a local restaurant afterward and had a nice lunch. We tried to purchase a return ticket at the Sedlec office but couldn’t find a machine there. We just walked 15 minutes to the Kutna Hora station since we had the time.
You have two choices for the trains to and from Kutna Hora hl.n. Direct trains are every other hour in both directions. There are trains in between that require passengers to transfer at the station in Kolin, which adds time and inconvenience. The train system has an easy-to-understand website and app: cd.cz
In Kutna Hora
Saint Barbara’s Cathedral
You don’t often find a cathedral built at the edge of the forest wilderness., This magnificent UNESCO-listed church is dedicated to Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners. Its unique design with a three-tent roof and intricate flying buttresses make it the town’s most significant monument. The construction took over 500 years, beginning in 1388. The building was interrupted several times due to the Hussite wars or lack of financial resources. Just like the church exterior, its interior is stunning and quite complex.
Lots of the interior imagery depict scenes from Kutná Hora’s mining life. The statue of a silver miner is unique, and the casual observer may think he has his apron on backward. In fact, the miners had to slide down shafts on their behinds, so the thick leather apron made the descent less painful.
Kutna Hora has a silver mining museum and a beautiful fountain. Potable water was needed because of the toxic impact of silver mining on the local supply and was transported through wooden pipes. The twelve-sided fountain is unusually large and originally had a hexagonal roof.
Other wonderful sites in Sedlec include the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. John the Baptist in Sedlec.