Sedlec Ossuary in Czech Republic: Creepy or Cool?

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Skulls and femurs made creepy patterns in the basement of a church in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, called an Ossuary. Max Hartshorne photos.
Skulls and femurs made creepy patterns in the basement of a church in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, called an Ossuary. Max Hartshorne photos.

An Ossuary, or a Collection of Bones, are Common Sights in Czech Churches Across the Country

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

This chandelier features one of every bone in a typical human's body in the Sedlec Ossuary.
This chandelier features one of every bone in a typical human’s body in the Sedlec Ossuary.

Today on GoNOMAD, we go deep down into a subterranean chapel  in the Czech Republic, to a remarkable place that is like nothing I have ever seen before.  I visited this place in September 2022, and came away with two impressions…creepy and cool.

This is the transcript from our podcast episode, that you can listen to below.

Kutná Hora is an ancient mining town in the Central Bohemia region of this small, landlocked nation. Today it’s one of the most popular towns to visit, with a population of just 21,000. Nothing here doesn’t look old…there is no jarring neon or fast food to mess up the look of the compact cobblestoned village.

The Sedlec Ossuary in Kutná Hora is both horrifying and delightful. It  is a series of artistic creations built entirely of human bones, with skulls, femurs, finger bones and collar bones formed into the shapes of a chandelier, an angel, a coat of arms, and dozens of other variations.

Even the artist who put all the bones together has his name there…written out in tiny finger bones.

The number of skulls all lined up that greets you here is pretty chilling, with row upon row of lifeless white skulls, and femurs lined up close together one by one, as if there was no limit to how many they could display.

It’s truly eery as you walk past so many femurs, so many skulls, and other bone that have been cleaned and polished as well as having been treated with lime to keep out the mold that would creep in after so many centuries underneath the church.

The ossuary at Verdun, France, that is made from the bones of soldiers who died there during World War 1. Abe Rastafar photo.
The ossuary at Verdun, France, that is made from the bones of soldiers who died there during World War 1. Abdul Rastagar photo.

Verdun, France’s Ossuary

Ossuaries are collections of bones…and believe it or not there are more than 100 ossuaries in the Czech Republic alone.

I first heard about ossuaries in a feature story we published this summer about Verdun, France.

There, a solemn tomb and grand building contains the bones of men who died from the battle there in world war one, a combination of German, French and English bones that you can view in Verdun, which the author called the saddest town in France.

But here in Kutná Hora , Czech Republic, there is nothing sad, but rather, it is a delightful repurposing of very familiar objects.

The tour we took takes place in the nighttime. and our tour guide was a dressed as a cistercian monk,  complete with the long robes and cross. He speaks with a reverent hush.

The bones in the Ossuary form many different shapes, including candle holders, chandeliers and even angels.
The bones in the Ossuary form many different shapes, including candle holders, chandeliers and even angels.

The entire basement of the church is lit up only with  hundreds of tiny candles that are lit for each tour.

The striking scene of thousands of skulls greets you as you walk down the stairs in a hushed silence. Respect for the bones is evident.

The exterior of the small church that holds the Ossuary in the basement.
The exterior of the small church that holds the Ossuary in the basement.

The Bones of  40-70,000 Bodies

These  forty thousand to seventy thousand people’s bones were from victims of the plague and or wars that took place during the fifteenth century.

More than 200 thousand people come to this strange underground ossuary every year, making it one of the top tourist destinations in the country.

Churchyard Burial Ground

Familiar bones at the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora.
Familiar bones at the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora.

The chapel goes back to the 15th century but the creation of the art using the bones didn’t happen until the 1800s.

Sedlec Ossuary History

The abbey and the churchyard had become a burial ground for thousands of bodies and it was decided to dig them up and create the ossuary.

A blind monk sometime around 1511 was given the task of exhuming the bodies and stacking up the thousands of skulls, leg bones and bones of various sizes.

Then artist Frantisek Rint, a local woodcarver, came up with the concept of making art with the bones in 1870. The Sedlec Ossuary was an instant hit.

Cleaning the Bones

The costumed priest who took us on the tour said that in recent years the skulls and bones had to be taken down  and the wires had to be replaced with stainless steel, and the skulls had to be cleaned with lime to keep them from discoloring.

Up on the ceiling of the ossuary in Sedlec, there are garlands made of vertebrae, and the centerpiece is a huge chandelier that contains at least one of every bone in a typical human’s body.

After the tour of the Sedlec Ossuary, you can visit the splendid Cathedral of our Lady at Sedlec, across the street.
After the tour of the ossuary, you can visit the splendid Cathedral of our Lady at Sedlec, across the street.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

The whole town of Kutná Hora was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, and both the Sedlec Ossuary, the Cathedral of our Lady at Sedlec and the beautiful Italian apartments figure prominently in this honor.

If you ever want to see this eerie and beautiful place, you can sign up for a daytime, or better, a nighttime tour, that will also include the impressive, huge cathedral of the assumption of our lady across the street.

Find out more about the Sedlec Ossuary tour

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