In defiance of an Adjective
If you travel to the Central Bohemian city of Kutná Hora, a visit to the Sedlec Ossuary is almost obligatory as it is one of that city’s main claims to fame. Located in the suburb of the city from which it takes its name, it is not at all difficult to access.
Once inside the ossuary, which is located below a small Gothic church in the Sedlec cemetery, you’ll most likely be left struggling for the right word to describe the scene that surrounds you there. “Incredible”, “Amazing”, “Bizarre” are all words which might come to mind; but when the gravity of the fact that you’re in a room with the remains of an estimated 40,000 people hits you, you’ll probably just remain speechless.
Ossuaries, or charnel houses as they are sometimes called, are not unusual things; there are many such places around the world. They are quite typical in places which historically had high population densities and experienced deaths on a large scale from either disease or war. Land was at a premium and even the largest of cemeteries could not hope to contain all the dead; as a result, the practice of term burials became the norm. A body would occupy a grave for a set length of time after which it would be removed to make place for a new burial and the remains would be reinterred in an ossuary.
Sedlec is one of many ossuaries in Europe and not even the largest of them. So what’s the key to its popularity, you might ask. Simply put, no other ossuary on the continent has arranged the bones of its occupants in such a deliberately artistic style as Sedlec has.
In the 12th century, a Cistercian monastery was established in Sedlec. In the late 13th century, the abbot of Sedlec returned from a mission to the holy land and brought back some soil from Golgotha to distribute on the grounds of the cemetery; as news of this spread, the cemetery became very famous and many people requested burial there.
A subsequent series of enlargements were made to the cemetery, initially due to the popularity of the cemetery, but later attributable to the plague epidemics of the 14th century and the Hussite Wars of the early 15th century.
The church and associated chapel which became home to the ossuary were built around 1400 and the task of exhuming abolished graves and placing the bones in the chapel began in 1511.
In the early 1700s, the ossuary saw the first of two remodelings. In this period, under the watch of the famous Czech architect of Italian descent, Jan Blažej Santini-Aichl, the charnel house was reworked to Czech Baroque style.
The Schwarzenbergs Step In
The Schwarzenberg family is a still extant line of old Bohemian-German nobility with significant land holdings in the Czech lands, Austria and Germany today.
Among the artistic arrangements you’ll find in the ossuary, there is a large representation of the Schwarzenberg coat-of arms. As the family was instrumental in giving the ossuary its current face, it’s only fitting to have acknowledgement of them here.
Up until 1870, the bones were simply piled haphazardly around the ossuary. It that year, the Schwarzenbergs took an interest in improving things and hired a master craftsman named František Rint to rearrange the bones in the artistic style that has survived to today.
Not only is the Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms represented in bones, Rint put his own signature on his finished work in bones as well.
Without a doubt, owing to the popularity of the cemetery after soil from the holy land was placed in it, more than a few Schwarzenbergs found their way to have it as their final resting place.
Visiting and Learning More
The ossuary is quite easy to visit as it’s not far from Kutná hora’s main train station. It’s about a 1300 metre walk from the station; alternately, you can take a public transit bus from the station or switch to a small local train with a stop closer to the ossuary to cut the walking distance. The ossuary is open year round, but the opening hours are variable upon the time of year.
The ossuary also provides information leaflets about the display in a variety of languages
It should be kept in mind that this is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Czech Republic. As such, some waiting in a queue should be expected if you visit in the high season.
There is a small tourist bus service that shuttles visitors between the ossuary and other attractions in the centre of Kutná Hora. However, one can walk from one location to the other and there is a public bus line running between the main train station and the centre of the city with a stop nearby the ossuary.
If the ossuary is your first stop on your visit to Kutná Hora, you may want to visit the tourist information office near the ossuary to find out more of what you can do in the area.
Visit the ossuary’s official website to learn more about the ossuary and the particulars of visiting it.