The Sedlec Ossuary is a Roman Catholic chapel located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in the quiet Czech Republic village of Kutná Hora. A UNESCO World Heritage Site attracting over 200,000 visitors each year, the ossuary contains the “artistically arranged” skeletons of an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 people. It is a truly remarkable – and terribly creepy – sight to behold.
In 1278, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec traveled to the Holy Land on the orders of King Otakar II of Bohemia. He returned to the region with a jar of soil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which he then sprinkled over the grounds of the abbey cemetery. Word of this pious act soon spread, and Sedlec became an increasingly desirable burial site for Europe’s wealthy elite.
The abbey cemetery was enlarged in the mid-14th and early 15th century, as the Black Death and Hussite Wars claimed tens of thousands of lives throughout Central Europe. Around the year 1400, a Gothic church was built in the center of the cemetery; a lower chapel was included in the design to serve as an ossuary, containing the remains of mass graves unearthed during construction or simply slated for demolition to accommodate new burials.
In 1511, the task of exhuming remains and positioning the skeletons fell to a half-blind Cistercian monk. The present arrangement of bones dates to 1870, and is attributed to Czech wood-carver František Rint. The most fascinating groupings include an immense chandelier* in the center of the nave (said to contain at least one of every bone in the human body), and the coat-of-arms of the noble House of Schwarzenberg. The largest collection of bones is arranged in the form of bell mounds in the four corners of the chapel.
Sedlec’s so-called Church of Bones is a haunting place, a must-see for those intrigued and inspired by the unusual and the macabre. While the artistry and skill of Master Rint is truly incredible, we found standing among the skeletal remains of thousands of plague and war victims to be a deeply unsettling experience. We were overwhelmed with feelings of both curiosity and repulsion, and were ready to leave the chapel within minutes of arriving. We’re glad we visited, but probably wouldn’t make the journey back. Not a ringing endorsement to be sure, but an honest one!
*Much to T.’s disappointment, the chandelier was absent (without explanation) during our visit in late May 2016. It is unclear for what purpose it was removed, and when (or if) it will be returned to the chapel.
Kutná Hora – located approximately 45 miles (70 kilometers) from Prague – is an easy day trip from the Czech capital. Sedlec Ossuary is open to the public daily from 8:00am to 6:00pm April to September, from 9:00am to 5:00pm in October and March, and from 9:00am to 12:00pm and 1:00pm to 4:00pm November to February. No admission is permitted on Christmas Day.
In 2016, the entrance fee is 90CZK (Czech Koruna) for adults and 60CZK for children (approximately US$3.70/€3.30 and US$2.50/€2.20 , respectively). There is no parking lot to speak of on site, but we easily found free street parking within 100 meters of the entrance.
Thank you for viewing! – T. & B. June
Next week’s journey: Eltz Castle – Germany