Sedlec Ossuary

By John Reality, Cambodia, June 2011

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Prague and the Czech Republic are virtually blanketed with macabre religious relics and architecture inspired by the violent and the bizarre, but it’s difficult to conceive of a more perfect example of the peculiar historic Czech tendency to embrace iconography informed by death than the Sedlec Ossuary. Housed in a small Roman Catholic chapel in a small suburb of the Czech city of Kutná Hora, the so-called “bone chapel” is filled with jaw dropping decorations, altars, coat-of-arms, etc., all constructed primarily with human skeletons.

The true number of deceased Bohemians unearthed by a half-blind monk and employed as sculpture by a demonically inspired woodcarver is the subject of wild speculation, but something between 40,000 and 70,000 skeletons are contained within the ossuary. It’s difficult to pin down just what František Rint (the aforementioned woodcarver) was thinking when he was employed by the aristocratic Schwarzenberg family to put the assemblage of remains in order. In any case, Master Rint took to the work with gusto and the results of his efforts are simultaneously astonishing and disturbing. Anyone familiar with the spot will be unsurprised to learn that it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The chapel is easily reached from Prague by train or organized tour, typically by way of a visit to nearby Kutná Hora, itself a UNESCO Site and a picturesque destination in its own right. It’s best to set aside a full day for the voyage, though an investment of half day will suffice if the ossuary is your sole destination.

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