Finding beauty in Europe’s grisly bone churches

AT first glance, they don’t appear to have anything in common. The one is an incredibly scenic lakeside village in Austria; the other a former silver-mining town in the Czech Republic. However, like the old miners from bygone times, delve a little deeper and all of a sudden you discover they share an uncommon tourist attraction regarded by more than a few as, well, grisly!

I am talking, of course, of an ossuary.

Do a Google search on what is an ossuary, and you will discover it is a noun carrying the rather clinical and colourless definition of a container or room in which the bones of dead people are placed. The word appeared in the 17th century from the Late Latin word for charnel house ossuarium and the Latin word for bone os to indicate the final resting place of human skeletal remains.

The most famous ossuary is situated on the outskirts of Kutna Hora, a mere hour’s travel from the Czech Republic’s capital city Prague. While difficult to imagine today, Kutna Hora rose to prominence in the political and economic life of medieval Central Europe on the back of silver mining. Wenceslas II established his mint at Vlašský dvur, known today as the Italian Court, and large-scale architectural projects such as the sublime Church of St Barbara testified to the incredible wealth of this lovely town overlooking the Vrchlice Creek.

Church of St Barbara
Kutna Hora’s fabulous Church of St Barbara represents late Gothic architecure

However, like a tall tree catching the breeze, Kutna Hora would suffer dramatically from the repeated winds of war and pestilence that swept through the plateau in the 16th and 17th centuries. The cost of these human tragedies, exacerbated by the state of the ravaged mines, resulted in the town’s rapid decline into ruin.

The large number of deaths, whether from war or pestilence, also had an unintended consequence…

In the 13th century, the Abbot of the nearby Sedlec Monastery returned from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with a jar of earth he had taken from Golgotha. Abbot Henry scattered this holy soil across the Sedlec cemetery, establishing it as one of the most desired burial sites in Central Europe. While medieval personalities clamoured to be interred in the Sedlec cemetery, the human toll from the political and religious upheavals of the 16th and 17th century simply overwhelmed the capacity of the small burial ground.

Caretakers were forced to dig up the bones, which they stored in a crypt to make space for the newly deceased.

In 1870, the church asked a local woodcarver, František Rint to artistically arrange the bones – with amazing, if macabre, results.

Sedlec Ossuary
The Schwarzenberg family crest – made from human bones

The story of the ossuary in the Austrian town of Hallstatt is contrasting but no less interesting. Like Kutna Hora, the spiritual custodians of Hallstatt struggled to inter corpses in a finite space. Unlike the mining town, the short supply of burial ground was as a result of Hallstatt’s unique and utterly spectacular setting rather than the ravages of war and pestilence.

Hallstatt, along with Varanasi in India, is among the oldest human settlements in the world. It was salt, not silver, that brought people to the idyllic shores of the Hallstätter See in Austria’s scenic Saltzkammergut region. The town occupies a narrow spit of land on the waterfront with timber dwellings fighting for purchase on the slopes of the mountain that disgorged the trading town’s white gold.

Hallstatt
Hallstatt is one of the most scenic villages in the world

By the 12th century, the town’s small cemetery was bursting at the seams and church fathers adopted the practice of exhuming bodies after 10 to 15 years, allowing the skulls to bleach in the sun before storing them in a charnel house. This freed up valuable space for the internment of the newly deceased. The church kept records of the remains and in 1720 locals adopted the tradition of decorating the ivory white skull with crowns of flowers, their names and even dates of death – much like one would decorate a grave.

While this practice ceased in 1955, respectful tourists still pay their respects at the chapel known as the Beinhaus in the basement of the Church of St Michael. It is also a popular destination for anthropologists who study the heritability of cranial traits in this depository of more than 1200 skulls.

While some travellers would find a visit to Hallstatt ossuary morbidly fascinating, I was humbled by the physical link it represents between living relatives and their forebears that lived, loved and died in the same pristine location. As my eyes drifted over the nearly 700 painted skulls, it paused to reflect on the paintings of roses on temples and crowns to indicate a mother, wife or daughter, and oak or ivy to commemorate a father, husband or son.

Hallstatt Ossuary
Most of the skulls bear a Maltese Cross

2 comments

  1. How did I miss this when I visited Hallstatt?? Another cool place if you’re into skulls and bones is the catacombs of Paris. Weird stuff, in the best way possible.

    • Annekebab, thanks for the comment! Yes, you are right! Interestingly enough, a significant difference between the skeletal remains in the Paris catacombs and Hallstatt is that in Paris they did not keep records.

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