11 Oct The Bone Church
Imagine a church decorated with the bones of up to 70,000 people. Picture ivory-coloured towers and artfully arranged skulls, delicate bone necklaces strung across the ceiling and shaped into elaborate coats of arms and chalices. This is what we discovered during an eerie yet beautiful visit to the Bone Church, located in the tiny town of Kutna Hora in the Czech countryside.
How the Bone Church in Kutna Hora came to be
The Sedlec Ossuary, also known as the Bone Church, started life as a catholic chapel located beneath the Church of All Saints in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic. In the 13th Century, the church’s Abbot took a trip to Jerusalem and brought back with him a jar of soil, which he sprinkled in the church cemetery. Word of this blessing from The Holy Land spread and the tiny cemetery quickly became a desirable place to be buried for locals and European Aristocracy.
By the 17th Century, there was no space left in the cemetery so resident monks decided to dig up the older skeletons, which they stored in the chapel. As time passed, some stories claim that a half-mad monk began to arrange the bones into patterns and designs. What we know for sure is that the Schwarzenberg family, who owned the land at the time, decided to hire a local woodcarver named Frantisek Rint in 1870 to arrange the bones. Rint’s signature, aptly written in bones, is displayed inside the Sedlec Ossuary today.
The Beauty of the Bone Church
Rint arranged the bones in all kinds of artistic designs. He used them to build the Schwarzenberg coat of arms, complete with a raven pecking out the eyes of an invader, and constructed grand bone chalices. Rint piled four bone towers in each corner of the chapel and strung ribbons of them around arches and across the ceiling. Totem poles of skulls were positioned in front of an altar, which was lit with flickering candles. The crowning glory of Rint’s design is a chandelier made out of every single bone in the human body.
Today the Bone Church is a World Heritage Site and one of the most visited attractions in the Czech Republic; it draws over 200,000 visitors to the small town of Kutna Hora each year. We visited on a day trip from Prague and joined hundreds of tourists who’d come to witness the strange beauty of the bone church. The small space was packed during our visit and I found all the flashing of cameras and constant bleeping of security alarms, signalling that someone had stepped too close to the bones, a bit off-putting. It wasn’t exactly the sombre experience I was expecting.
We were also unlucky to visit at a time when the chandelier had been taken down for restoration, but we were still awed by the sheer scale of the bones and the careful thought that had gone into their arrangement. It was interesting to see ancient soldier’s skulls which bore the marks of medieval weapons; healing scars show that some of the soldiers miraculously survived their severe injuries.
It’s said that Rint intended the Bone Church to serve as a reminder of the impermanence of life and our inability to escape death. I certainly found Sedlec Ossuary to be one of the most eerily-beautiful and unique religious buildings I’ve ever visited.
Visiting Kutna Hora Bone Church in the Czech Republic
We took a train from Prague Central Station to the town of Kutna Hora, which lies about 70 km east of Prague. The journey took about an hour and it cost 183 Czech Koruna (CZK) per person, £5.75, for a return ticket. There’s a small tourist office at Kutna Hora station where you can pick up a map. We walked from there to Sedlec Ossuary in about 20 minutes. Find out more information about visiting from the Sedlec Ossuary official website.
Entrance to the Bone Church cost 90 CZK (£2.80) per adult. The church is open every day except the 24th and 25th December, opening hours are as follows:
- November – February: 9am – 4pm.
- March: 9am – 5pm.
- April – September: 8am – 6pm (9am – 6pm on Sundays).
- October: 9am – 5pm.
You can also visit the nearby cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady and St John the Baptist and take either a tourist shuttle or local bus into the town to explore.
What’s the most unique church or religious building you’ve ever visited?