The City Under the City
Through the middle ages Brno was a fortified city, this meant that space for things on the surface was very limited so long as the city walls were standing. To address that issue, the citizens of Brno created space under the city. Three locations of the city’s historic underground vaults and cellars are open to the public: The Cellar Under the New Town Hall, the Vegetable Market Labyrinth and the St James church ossuary.
While the locations are not physically connected to each other and must be visited separately, they are all within easy walking distance of each other in the city centre and can easily be visited in the space of a day.
Together, all three of these attractions will give you some very good insights into how people in walled cities lived and worked.
The Vegetable Market Labyrinth
The Vegetable Market Square is among Brno’s oldest squares and has been a place of trade for fresh produce for centuries. The cellars which make up the labyrinth which runs under the square date to the medieval and baroque periods and were created primarily as a place for merchants to store their wares in close proximity to the market, though some cellars were also used for beer and wine making. Historically, the cellars were independent of each other and built under individual houses, the labyrinth which connects them today and allows people to tour them was the product of major repair and reconstruction work in 2009.
Guided tours of the labyrinth, in Czech but text in other languages is available, start regularly and take approximately 45 minutes. There are about 30 different cellars to view along the way, some are set up to show how they would appear in their original intent as food storage areas while others are arranged to show other aspects of period life.
Two notable displays in the labyrinth are the alchemist’s laboratory and the torture room with its pillory. Also in strong evidence is the use of parts of the area as wine cellars.
The Cellar Under the New Town Hall
This Cellar, discovered during an archaeological survey of Dominican Square in the city centre in 1999, consists of a historic and modern section and displays Brno’s history as a minting centre from the 11th to 16th centuries as well as artifacts of a royal chapel that stood on the square until the early 1900s.
The Cellar Under the New Town Hall was permanently opened to the public in 2010. Until 2022, it was known as The Mintmaster’s Cellar.
Historically, a Slavonic settlement had existed on the site of what would become Dominican Square. The contemporary part of the cellar contains a selection of artifacts from the period of that settlement as well as later time periods.
On display from this period of time are a range of ceramic, glass and metal artifacts that show the state of those crafts at the time as well as scale models of dwellings and other arcitecture of the period.
Dominican Square was historically known as a fish market, this part of the location’s history is also featured in this Cellar.
Guarding a Loss
Figuring very prominently in the cellar displays is information and artifacts connected to the demolished royal chapel which once stood on the square. In the contemporary part of the cellar, you can find photographs, drawings and a model of the chapel before demolition. In the Historic section of the cellars, actual sections of the building are on display.
the demolition of the chapel was very controversial from the moment it was proposed and, despite protests from many quarters of society, the demolition went ahead.
However, the building was very carefully and thoroughly documented by photographs and architectural drawings before it was pulled down. It was dismantled very carefully so that it might be reconstructed at another location. While there is no plan currently to reconstruct it, a recent inventory has found that a majority of the chapel’s components can be accounted for at various locations around Brno.
St. James Church Ossuary
Ossuaries, or charnel houses, are not an unusual phenomenon in Europe. The continent’s history has seen plague and war wash across it more than once; such events bring with them sharp increases in mortality which even the largest of typical cemeteries would find difficult if not impossible to contend with.
Many cemeteries, such as the one which was attached to St. James’ Church, resorted to term burials in which graves would be exhumed after a set number of years to make room for new burials. The exhumed remains would in turn be cleaned and entombed in a purpose built ossuary.
The establishment of the ossuary under St.James’ Church probably dates to the 17th century. The charnel house filled quickly due to epidemics of plague and cholera as well as casualties of the Thirty Years’ War; these events required huge numbers of older graves to be exhumed to make room for new burials in a relatively short span of time. This situation necessitated an extension of the ossuary in the early 1740s that saw it physically connected to the church crypt, the new expansion filled quickly and another enlargement was planned though not undertaken.
In the late 1700s, a sweeping series of reforms was enacted by Joseph II of Austria designed to bring the Habsburg Empire into a more enlightened way of life. As a result of those reforms, the cemetery at St. James’ Church was abolished for hygiene reasons and paved over with disused tombstones. The ossuary was sealed and forgotten.
Lost and Found
In 2001, in preparation for renovating the square which St. James’ Church sits on, a survey of the ground under the square and church was performed and revealed the existence of the ossuary.
More surprising than finding the ossuary was learning the scope of it, it was a massive collection of bones estimated to have belonged to in excess of 50,000 people. The survey also revealed an accumulation of humidity and mould which could not go untreated if the bones were to survive and the ground under the busy square above to remain stable. The only solution was to refurbish the ossuary and open it to the public.
The refurbishment saw the removal and cleaning of all remains in the ossuary and the careful cataloging of archaeological items found along with the bones. The ossuary was opened to the public in 2012.
Visiting the St. James’ Church Ossuary
As it is directly in the centre of the city, along Rašinova street, this attraction is very easy to access. Marked by a large vertical concrete slab on one corner of the square it shares with the church, the entry to the ossuary is hard to miss.
Unlike the Vegetable Market Labyrinth and The Cellar Under the New Town Hall, the ossuary is a self-guided attraction. At the time you pay for admission, you are given a small information pamphlet and allowed to walk about freely at your own pace . Non-flash photography is permitted.
I would say that this is not the place for claustrophobic people as some of the corridors are quite dark and cramped. On my visit, I did detect a slight mustiness to the air; so if you suffer from respiratory conditions or mould allergies you will want to make sure you have your inhaler or other relevant medication quickly to hand before entering.
The St. James’ ossuary is an understated display, keeping the bones in their original stockpiled manner and letting the sheer volume of them do the talking. This is in striking contrast to the grandiose and artistic display of bones at the much more famous Sedlec ossuary in Kutná Hora, in the central part of the country.
Visiting Brno’s Underground Attractions and Learning More
The city tourist information centre website has info about opening hours, tours times and admission prices for all sections of the underground.