Take Me to Church

The pearly gates at the Sedlec Ossuary

by Jackson Paine; illustration by Erin Shea

The Book of Genesis has never been regarded as a particularly cheerful read. When Adam and Eve eat the fruit of knowledge and are expelled from the Garden of Eden, God lets them know the consequences of their transgressions when He says “By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.” (Gen 3:19)

Christians try to reconcile with mortality. They know that their body’s final destination is a deep, dusty hole in the ground. That is, unless you died in the Czech Republic during the middle ages, in which case your body’s final destination may have been a chandelier.

It is estimated that between architect Frederick Rintz and the monks caring for the Ossuary in the 15th and 16th century, the skeletons of approximately 10,000 people were used for the decoration of the Ossuary’s interior. The Sedlec Ossuary is located in the small town of Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic. It attracts thousands of visitors every year with its elaborate bone decorations. Upon entering, chandeliers, pillars and altars constructed out of human bones surround the visitors. Strings of skulls hang from the ceiling. The cubbies and alcoves of the church are filled with sculptures and crosses made of everything from femurs to hip joints to skulls. Frederick Rintz literally left his fingerprint on the church by using finger bones to spell “1870, F. Rintz.” While he wasn’t the first to use the skeletons to decorate the church, Rintz was responsible for the larger pieces in the beautiful, bony basilica. 

The story of the church’s cadaverous decorations is an old one, dating back centuries to the time of Abbot Henry. In the year 1278 A.D., Henry went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where he collected a jar of dirt from Golgatha, the supposed site of Christ’s crucifixion. Upon return, Henry sprinkled this dirt around the grounds of his church, hallowing the grounds and putting the Sedlec church on the map. Many people requested that their bodies be entombed in these sacred grounds. A burial on a plot with a connection to Jesus Christ and the Holy Land meant a lot to the predominantly Roman Catholic population of Europe at this time. 

When the Bubonic Plague struck Europe in the 14th century, disposing of bodies became a huge issue. The Roman Catholic Church has specific burial rites that must be followed in order for the interred individual to go to heaven. Usually the clergy would bless his or her home, light candles around the coffin, pray and then bury the body in a plot of blessed earth. The problem with these rituals was there were simply too many dead bodies to keep up with. Priests were working overtime to bless and bury these bodies properly, and they began to catch the plague as well. Soon, there was no one around to bless and inter the bodies in individual family graves, and space in the graveyards was running out.

Europe began digging mass graves dubbed “plague pits” to dispose of the diseased corpses that filled the streets and people's homes. Some pits appeared on unsanctified land, but the more devout Roman Catholics wanted their relatives to get to heaven—they tried to find graveyards that had already been blessed. This made the already famous Sedlec church even more popular for burials during the plague, forcing it to expand its graveyard into mass graves. Historians claim that between 40,000 and 70,000 bodies were buried in the Sedlec Graveyard during this time.

Roman Catholic tradition dictates that all Christian remains need to be cared for properly, but some customs are more important than others. Beyond thecrucifix that decorates most churches, relics and body parts of “exemplary figures and saints” have great value in the Roman Catholic tradition, explains Devaka Premawardhana, an anthropologist of religion and professor here at Colorado College. 

“[Relics] are understood to be the means of miraculous healing,” Premawardhana writes. “So in a sense [the remains] evoke death, yet in another sense they provoke, or are understood to be generators or regenerators of life.” Because of this reputation, thousands of people every year embark on pilgrimages to holy shrines and relics, seeking relief from ailments.

In 1421, Hussites burned the church to the ground, and when the church was rebuilt, a new chapel was built on top of the graveyard. During its construction, the bones of the mass grave were exhumed. This created an issue, because human remains are important in the Roman Catholic tradition, even when they are not the bones of “exemplary figures.” 

“The remains of certain dead are surrounded with special care and veneration. This is because the mortal remains of the deceased are associated in some manner with the holiness of their souls, which await reunion with their bodies in the resurrection,” Dom Bernardo Cignitti of the Saint Benedict Order writes.

No one would go on a pilgrimage to see the bones of commoners, but the church couldn’t just throw out the bones of practicing Christians. As a result, an ossuuary was created in the lower levels of the chapel. The word ossuary means “a container or room in which the bones of dead people are placed,” like a sort of Christian bone bank. The ossuary has a small reputation for the miraculous as well. Local legend states that a half-blind monk began to organize and stack the bones into pyramids, and when he was finished, his sight was restored. This echoes the Roman Catholic belief in relics, that remains still have power even after the soul and flesh have left it. Whether or not this story is true is irrelevant; the decorative arrangements of femurs, skulls and pelvises persist to this day.

In the year 1783, the Sedlec monastery was abolished and the ossuary was given to the Schwarzenberg family, who continued to preserve the bones. In 1870, the Schwarzenbergs commissioned Czech woodcarver Frantisek Rink to expand the bone decorations of the church. Rink cleaned and bleached thousands of bones and then used them to create macabre masterpieces. The chandelier envelops the ceiling of the room like some kind terrifying spider web—creepy, but precise. Rink also created a bone replica of the Schwarzenberg coat of arms, which contains an impressive amount of detail. For example, the lower right-hand corner of the original coat of arms contains the severed head of a Turk having its eye plucked out by a raven. Rink created the raven out of bones, complete with wings made of hands and a beak made out of a carved femur bone. The craftsmanship is creative and impeccable.

The Schwarzenbergs weren’t just big art enthusiasts. They wanted to create something that showed the “impermanence of life.” How death could not be escaped, only evaded. In a sense the Schwarzenbergs succeeded; every light fixture contains a skull, every wall a garland of bones. There is even a case full of the skulls of dead soldiers, holes of various sizes penetrating abandoned craniums like broken shells on a beach.

There is an implicit question hidden within the Sedlec Ossuary: Why create this? Even when we understand the history that led to the vast number of bones buried there and the religious rites that prohibited just throwing the bones away, it seems like a lot of work for such a creepy product.

 Inherent in the celebration is the idea that there are those who will live on after you, the same way you have lived past all the people who came before you. Human beings die, babies are born, the world keeps turning, and the skeletons keep dancing. 

 “It’s an interesting paradox,” Premwardhana said. “Something that probably strikes them as an aspect of death, disincarnated bones without flesh, is actually invoked for the cause of life.” Human beings want to confront this fear of death. The people who journey to the Sedlec Ossuary are just ordinary people, families on vacation more often than monks on pilgrimage. They have a morbid desire to see these grinning, human scaffoldings and lock eyes with the hollow sockets of people who came before us. In this gaze, there is an understanding. 

These bones once walked this earth, sure that after the clock struck its final midnight, they would lie down for their final rest. Life would end. But, the living keep walking, and the clock keeps ticking and it will continue to do so until we’re dust or chandeliers as well.

The fear of death aside, there is something beautiful and holy about this church of bones. Christians look to religion to live virtuously so that they may be reunited with their relatives in the afterlife. The book of John states “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Everyone dies alone, even those who follow Jesus. But the teachings say that they will be reunited with one another in “eternal life” one day. For the souls whose bones make up the Ossuary, this reunification can already be seen. The skeletons that make up the décor span hundreds of years and thousands of miles, yet here they all are in the same place hundreds of years after their death. In a way, the Sedlec Ossuary is a representation of heaven, all of the bones of Christians gathered in one place like souls at the pearly gates. Their lives have ended, but the core of their beings, whether soul or bone, live on.