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Showcase of death


A ghoulish curiosity, an absorbing lesson in human anatomy, a macabre meditation on death, a singular work of beauty.

All Saints Chapel outside the Czech town of Kutná Hora can be any and all of these to the visitors who come to gape at the human remains on display. The skeletons of about 40,000 people lie in the small chapel, heaped up in four bell-shaped pyramids and displayed as decorative motifs on the walls. At the entrance to the chapel -- sometimes familiarly referred to as “the bone church” -- bones form the inscription IHS, Latin for Iesus Hominum Salvator or Jesus, the Savior of Humanity. Close by, crosses and two large chalices several feet high are formed of the bones of the dead.

The skull and crossbones appear everywhere. Rows of skulls interspersed with crossbones line the walls, decorate the arched entrances, or swing from the ceiling. In the interior of this ossuary, or receptacle for bones, four candelabra are crowned with skulls. Glass cases nearby hold the broken skulls of warriors killed by a flail or mace.

Chandelier guessing game

Among religious objects of note is a large monstrance with bones radiating from a skull at the center. But the pièce de résistance of the skeletal decor is a giant chandelier composed of every bone in the human body. A favorite guessing game with visitors is trying to figure out which parts of the chandelier correspond to which parts of the body. That small horizontal tube-like shape: Is it a finger bone, a toe bone or something else?

“It’s a great learning tool,” Californian Steve Bagues said as he studied the chandelier.

The creepy decor is the work of Frantisek Rint, a Czech woodcarver who in 1870 arranged the chapel as it is today. But the bodies in the ossuary, like the ossuary itself, date back many centuries earlier.

In 1142 a Cistercian monastery was established in Sedlec in Central Bohemia. The discovery of silver ore some years after on nearby abbey property led to the establishment of Kutná Hora, at one time the most important city in Bohemia after Prague. The central Royal Mint was established in Kutná Hora in 1308, and in 1400 King Wenceslas IV made the town the royal residence.

Today Sedlec is little more than a suburb of Kutná Hora, which lies two kilometers away. But in the Middle Ages, the monastery at Sedlec was a thriving and influential community. It had enough wealth to construct the Assumption of the Virgin Mary Cathedral between the years 1280 to 1320 as well as a small Gothic chapel about a century later at the site of a local cemetery.

The brilliant Baroque architect Jan Santini remodeled both the cathedral and the chapel, which had been destroyed in a fire. The origins of the chapel go back to 1278 when King Otakar II of Bohemia sent the abbot of Sedlec on a diplomatic mission to the Holy Land. On leaving Jerusalem, Abbot Jindrich took a handful of earth from Golgotha, which he sprinkled over the cemetery at Sedlec monastery. Subsequently regarded as part of the Holy Land, the cemetery grew famous throughout Central Europe and became a popular place of burial for the wealthy.

The plague in the 14th century vastly swelled the number of dead buried in the cemetery. According to administrators of All Saints Chapel, in 1318 about 30,000 people were buried in the cemetery. The Hussite wars in the early 15th century also increased the number of graves. The bones from abolished graves were stored around the chapel and eventually inside it. In 1511 a half-blind monk first took on the task of arranging the bones in pyramids.

Skulls just too much

In 1784 the Austrian Emperor Josef II abolished the monasteries in the empire. The property in Sedlec was purchased by the Schwarzenberg family, whose coat of arms hangs in the chapel and is crafted from bones of different sizes and lengths and surmounted by a crown featuring two skulls offset by hip bones.

Today the ossuary draws curiosity-seekers from around the world and evokes a variety of responses. Some find it indecent, others simply arresting.

“It’s like Halloween decoration gone horribly wrong,” said Kelly Powick, a Canadian teacher in Prague who was visiting on a weekend trip to Kutná Hora. Clearly disturbed by the morbid sights around her, Powick said she particularly objected to the festoons of skulls that hang in the chapel. “It’s overwhelmingly in your face,” Powick complained. “If you went to a room and there were some candelabra of bones, I could deal with it, but the streamers of skulls is just too much.”

Aesthetic as well as ingenious

Dimitri Limberopulos, a university student from Mexico, was thoroughly enthusiastic. Unlike Powick, Limberopulos found the decor aesthetic as well as ingenious. “It’s amazing how you can do really nice things with what is usually rejected by people. The chandelier is beautiful,” he said, marveling at the way the jawbones act as the chains of the chandelier, the skulls as the candles, and what he thought were tibia or fibia as the crystals.

If visitors frequently find the spectacle at All Saints Chapel disconcerting, none polled on a recent visit there seemed to find it depressing. On the other hand, though responses to the bone church run the gamut, few reported the chapel awakening religious feeling despite the information sheet that states “the human bones represent multitudes that none can count facing God’s throne.”

Death rather than God is what the chapel showcases -- so much so that it’s easy to overlook the chapel’s graceful architecture. A less distracting and truly outstanding example of Jan Santini’s work is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary Cathedral just down the street. The cathedral is a monument to Cistercian simplicity and a beautiful example of the Baroque-Gothic style Santini pioneered. The delicacy of the intricate vaulted ceiling is a marvel.

But it’s the bone church that draws people, a rarity in its own time and certainly in ours. According to Augustinian Fr. William Faix, a medieval historian and the pastor of St. Thomas Church in Prague, while death motifs are also present in medieval art and literature, the ossuary in Kutná Hora is really a phenomenon of the Baroque period, when death assumed an aesthetic of its own. The prototype of such bone chapels is the Capuchin Church in Rome on the Via Veneto, Faix said. The church, St. Mary of the Conception, has five underground cemetery chapels dating to the 17th century and decorated with the bones of some 4,000 Capuchin friars.

Though familiar with the chapel in Kutná Hora, Faix had not visited it despite many years of living in the Czech Republic and clearly had no intention of doing so. “I find such things abhorrent,” he said.

If horror is one common response to the chapel, so is humor.

“I’ve been thinking of doing something similar in my home,” a deadpan North American voice comments to a companion while touring the chapel.

Doug Heller, an American from New York City, observed that during daylight profane comments are probably often made in the chapel. “It could be a rather frightening thought to spend the night alone here,” he said. “You’d start thinking about death and what it would be like to be part of the chandelier,” Heller said.

Heller’s wife, Katya, a native Czech, said the chapel prompted her to consider the different ways people have thought about death over the centuries. Nobody would assemble such a spectacle today; too many questions would be asked about using people’s bones in this way, Katya Heller said. At Kutná Hora, though, “they chose to do something that in some way paid homage to what happened,” she said.

Graffiti and theft

Respect for the dead has not always been shown by visitors to the chapel. Graffiti is scribbled on one of the skulls on display. Tomás Marhoun, a native of Kutná Hora who formerly worked for a security company, said the ossuary has had problems with theft in the past, which prompted the installation of a motion detector alarm when the chapel is closed.

Marhoun said the ossuary is typical of an era when people wanted to be buried close to a church and a saint’s reliquaries. “It’s a good meditation on death, about how fragile are people’s lives,” he said.

About 450 people a day visit All Saints Chapel, said Miloslava Cabelková, who takes tickets at the entrance to the chapel. Cabelková said her previous job at the post office was much more stressful and she finds the chapel not sad or depressing but peaceful. “It’s perfect here,” she said. “No problems.”

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer.

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002