|All photos: Alex Carr|
My friend left the answer up to me, but there really was no choice. Six months ago, I put together a list of the ten sites across the world that I wanted to see the most. The Bone Church was Number 7 on that list. It was in no particular order.
There were three of us on the trip, and, after renting a car in the early, drizzly hours of what we call Columbus Day in the States and what the Germans merely call Montag, we took off south. Due to the length of the trip, we stuck to the Autobahn and didn’t see anything of, say, Dresden as we passed. We crossed the Czech border without knowing it, only later realizing the signs had changed from one language we didn’t know to another, passed Prague (where we would stop for an hour or so on our return trip), and finally, four or five hours later, arrived at the historic, but small city of Kutna Hora.
The church itself was also under construction, but seemed small and relatively unremarkable. The same goes for the cemetery surrounding it. But, in the words of Francesco Dellamorte in Cemetery Man, “It’s got a marvelous ossuary.”
We followed the signs to the ossuary entrance, walked through the doors…and immediately saw bones. And skulls. Lots and lots of bones. And lots and lots of skulls. I was already awe-struck and we had barely crossed the threshold. I felt like I was surrounded by shafts of light amidst choruses of Hallelujahs sung from the supple throats of hundreds of castrati…except that the heavenly approbation was centered on a scene straight out of horror-movie hell.
The ceilings were high, though, and windows near that top of the walls (just aboveground outside) actually gave the place an open feel. This ossuary was no dungeon or a house of horror. Just a colorless room full of bones. And skulls. Lots and lots of bones. And lots and lots of skulls.
Adorning one of the cages was a large coat of arm…bones. Also skulls. And pelvises. Other types of dead calcium. It looked like something a person would get tattooed on their upper arm. Let me rephrase that. It looked like something I’d want tattooed across my entire back. I need to start a GoFundMe.
However, we can’t just blame/credit the monks on this one. History time.
The church was originally part of a bohemian monastery founded in 1142, although the present church itself wasn’t built until the 14th century. The laminated yellow handout they gave us on entry recounted a legend that the cemetery became popular in the 13th century when an abbot came back from the Holy Land and spread dirt from Golgotha in the cemetery, imbuing it with spiritual properties in the way that only topsoil fed by executed deity blood can.
In the 15th century, the monastery got rid of some land and lost grave space in the process. So, as they do in older cemeteries, they dug up the graves and stuck the bones in the basement, giving us the delightful term ossuary. By the 16th century the bones had been arranged in some kind of monk-like way, although by whom nobody knows. One legend tells of a blind monk who did it and miraculously gained his sight afterward. I assume his first words were, “Shite. Bones?”
But we can credit some relatively modern people for the current state of the ossuary.
In 1870, the building was bought by the Schwarzenberg family, and they had a woodcarver named Frantisek Rint disinfect the bones and, according to the history books, “make the place awesome.” He’s the one who made all the decorations as we seem them today, especially the chandelier and the coat of arms, which is the Schwarzenberg coat of arms. Rint’s name is also spelled in bones on the wall.
When we first arrived at the ossuary, there were maybe half a dozen people there. But this is a major tourist attraction 45 minutes outside of a major tourist city. And quickly it became absolutely crowded with fellow tourists, testing my theories about how many people could fit into the room and giving us plenty of perfect pictures like these:
What I love about that is I’m sure, absolutely sure, that those strange hordes of sightless skulls have seen stranger sites over the past centuries—and will see stranger still in the coming ones. Sometimes the oddity is really us.