While on the train to Prague, I got a chance to read my guide book. It had a small section on day trips, and recommended a visit to a small town called Kutna Hora. The town itself didn't sound overly remarkable - an impressive church called "St. Barnabas" sat high on a hill above the city, but outside of it and the requisite fountain and city square, it would fall off of most people's radar. Though at one point it was a hub of silver mining, today its claim to fame is actually in one of its suburbs, and something most of the locals aren't all that proud of - The Bone Church.
First of all, it's not actually an entire church made out of bones - I thought that too. Apparently in the late 13th century, the abbot of Sedlec returned from Jerusalem with a bit of dirt from Golgotha, which he spread over the grounds of the cemetary. Everyone who heard this wanted to be buried there, and overpopulation quickly became an issue. When the bubonic plague hit, there was simply no more room for the dead. The All Saints Ossuary was created in the basement of the church in 1511. Evenutally (and I can't make this up), a half-blind monk collected the bones of more than 30,000 people and stacked them up in huge piles. Eventually, the Schwarzenbergs a rich local family, commissioned an artist named Rint to compose the bones into artwork inside the ossuary. Apparently over 40,000 people's bones now "adorn" the ossuary.
A day after I arrived, I asked the attendant at the hostel if he had any tips on getting to Kutna Hora. He didn't seem overly pleased. He went into a little spiel about how there were many other beautiful places to visit around Prague, and why do people always want to go to the Bone Church.
Yeah, yeah man. Whatever. What train do I catch?
An hour and a half later, I stepped onto platform number two of the Kutna Hora train station. About 15 people got off with me, most of which were equipped with backpacks and bottles of water and seemed to have the same idea as me.
I followed the crowd - a little train of tourists walking like lemmings down the streets of the town. I'm sure it was pretty funny for the traffic passing by. After a couple of twists and turns, we ended up on a small street with a gentle incline which ended at a grove of trees. Through the trees sat the spires of the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady and St. John the Baptist.
As with most European churches, there were a multitude of gravestones squeezed into what would have been the building's lawn. I don't think there would have been room for another.
A small crowd had gathered at the entrance - obviously the innards of a nearby tour bus which had oozed out onto the sidewalk. I meandered my way (as deftly as possible for someone 6'9") toward the entrance - hoping to avoid waiting in line. I bent myself around the door, making it inside just before the guide started the procession. The ticket counter was right there - I paid my entrance fee, along with another 30 Czech crowns to be able to take pictures. (Which, in my opinion, is a load of crap. This has happened in a few other places - one price for admission, then tack on another 60% just to get out your camera. I'm sure they have their reasons, but it's dumb.)
Once they were done ripping me off, I turned to face a stone stairway which lead down into a dark room. In front of me, above the stairs, a wall was decorated. Not with a beautiful mosaic or a painting by a renaissance master - no, it was adorned with a cross shaped from human bones. They were everywhere - outlining the cross, surrounding the arched window above my head... To either side of the stair case sat a vase - but not ordinary vases - they were tall and intricate - as ornate as those typically seen shaped from gold or silver. But these had been shaped from human tibias and femurs. Scapulas and pelvic bones. The tops were capped with a lid of skulls.
Bizarre? Yes. Creepy? Check. Disturbing? Oh yeah.
I went downstairs, where thankfully there were a few people already gawking. It made me feel better to see others around. When I reached the floor, I found the room to be dimly lit, with candles burning, a few uncovered incandescent lights glowing, and a shaft of sunlight coming in through the east-facing window.
I looked to my sides. Both the left and the right contained large openings covered with wire fencing. I went to my left and stood in front of it. Behind the metal sat a huge, irregular shaped "bells" - probably ten or twelve feet high, twelve to fifteen feet across, and consisting of two levels separated by a horizontal concrete edge. The entire bell - every conceivable area - was covered with bones. Layers upon layers of skulls and other bones. The bell was literally made out of them. There was a semi-circle shaped hole in the center, about three feet wide and a foot and, just about large enough to slide a body into.
I found there to be four bells - each resting in the corners of the room. As I walked around to the other side of the one I was facing, I found what appeared to be a huge crest, which turned out to be the Schwarzenberg family seal, made from bones. Hanging from the top of the opening, it was at least eight feet tall and about five feet wide. It of course consisted of only bones - some arranged to form the shape of an axe, others the shape of birds.
I wheeled around to face the center of the room. I looked above to the ceiling. A lattice-work of skulls and other bones were draped across the stone roof like streamers.
Hanging low from the middle and surrounded by four tall pillars was the church's defining item - The Chandelier. I'd read about this in the guide book. The chandelier apparently contains at least one of every bone in the human body. It was immense - eight tentacle-like arms curling out and up from the center - each holding a candle in bones arranged like a large flower. Femurs hung down from the arms like wind chimes, each swaying just slightly. The skulls in the center seemed to be staring at me.
Four black granite, obelisk-shaped pillars were arranged below the chandelier, forming a square. Each was about ten feet high, decorated with an array of human skulls on each side, one on top of the other. Disturbingly, the top of each was adorned with a trumpeting angel, every one of them holding a skull on its lap.
Behind the chandelier, toward the back of the ossuary stood an altar. The image of Christ on the cross hung high on the wall, with a set of very dirty windows behind it. To my relief, this image wasn't made of bones. In fact, there were very few bones at all inside the altar itself. I couldn't help but wonder what Christ would think about this.
I stayed for a while, taking pictures, and wondering what kind of man decides this is a good idea. As I left, I noticed the "artist's" name on the wall - and of course, it was signed in bones.
As I went up the stairs toward the door, I passed a new group of people with bewilderment in their eyes. An interesting day trip to be sure. I can't really say I enjoyed it, but it was indeed amusing. I'm not sure I'll ever see anything like that again.