As it’s been said several times already in this blog, many details are lost to history. What one felt or wore or where someone disappeared often times will never be known, making a mystery people either have a hard time excepting or can’t stop thinking about.
Last November while construction and maintenance took place at the Sedlec Ossuary in Chzechia 1,500 bodies were uncovered. According to the Prague Daily Monitor, this is the largest amount of uncovered bodies in Bohemian history. Most of the bodies, now nothing more than bones, are from a series of famines that swept the land between the 14th and 15th centuries.
In a way, this long forgotten burial site was found in the most convenient location possible. The ossuary above it is home to one of the most macabre display of human bones, totaling 40,000.
In 1278, the abbot of a monastery was sent to Jerusalem by the King of Bohemia. His journey was long and not easy from Eastern Europe to Israel, but he came back with dirt from Golgotha––the alleged site of Jesus’ crucifixion. The abbot spread the dirt where the ossuary now stands, creating a holy site.
But where did all the bones come from?
Before the Sedlec Ossuary was a cemetery in its place. After the sprinkling of soil, the people in the area demanded to be buried right there. The ground was now holy, after all.
A church was constructed in the cemetery in the 15th century, and its basement was dedicated as the ossuary (a place where corpses are kept). A monk was tasked with organizing the influx of dead bodies. Imagine the amount of corpses funneling into the cemetery. Famines and wars desecrated the once plentiful soils. Harsh winters one year and too much rainfall the next left the people desperate for food. People starved, died, and were taken to the holiest place in the area to be buried.
The abbot arranged the bodies in pyramids, perhaps calling back to the strong, ancient structures of the pharaohs. It wasn’t until 1870 when the bones were arranged in such beautiful and horrific ways in the church that today over 200,000 people visit yearly. The designer was woodcarver Frantisek Rint, who spent countless hours honoring the dead by assembling them in neat rows or hanging them from the ceiling.
The chandelier which hangs from the center of ossuary is breathtaking. Comprised of every bone in the human body, skulls are used as candle holders suspended by vertebrae, femurs, or both. The coat of arms rival the most ornate designs with several lilac crests placed together like stark white fans; ulnas, radiuses, and sacrum placed perfectly next to one another; and skulls used like portraits of the ancestors of the church.
What rises behind the coat of arms is even more chilling: a mountain of bones heaped onto one another. One can’t look from left to right without seeing crosses made out of tibias and fibulas, or skulls mounted on walls as if they were easy to come by.
The Sedlec Ossuary is not the only one of its kind. France is home to its own dark catacombs and an ossuary in Rome many consider is even more chilling than this one––more alive. During Medieval times the people demanded for physical representations of their faith. In cities like Rome, relics are found everywhere in churches, such skulls said to be Paul and Peter's, planks of wood said to have been from Jesus’ manger, and stairs walked on by Jesus shipped to a basilica for people to climb on their knees in prayer. Whether the relics are actual clothing Paul wore or simply an object once said to have been touched by Peter, people bring offerings to these holy articles daily.
Ossuaries are reminders of the dead’s faith. Many believe if they’re buried on holy land, they may be among the first to be called into Heaven upon Christ’s return. The idea is beautiful, perhaps even suffocating if one is to witness the thousands of exposed bodies strewn together to celebrate the dead of the faithful.
On the surface the Sedlec Ossuary looks like it contains the world’s darkest secrets. Because of horror in films and literature, we’re primed to be afraid or suspicious when we see a dead body turned into a stunning demonstration. Especially in a church these suspicions rise in the back of our minds. However, this ossuary is nothing more than an elaborate celebration of death.
40,000 celebrations of death.
(Watch a video tour of the ossuary here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6h88MTtfqA8)