Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Bone Church

I have been fortunate to travel to several different European countries this year.  I use my Facebook account to keep my family in New Mexico updated on my European adventures.  I am currently in western Czech Republic, otherwise known as Bohemia, enjoying the local historical sites, and indulging in the famed Bohemian food, spas, mineral baths and beer.  I wrote the following short article for my Facebook account.


I have read a lot about the 16th century Reformation in Europe, and while I find the subject fascinating, I quickly forget a lot of it because I have no visceral attachment to the subject.  A lot of that has changed now that I have actually visited Europe, and seen for myself some very small effects of Europe’s dark history.

We visited the nearby town of Kutná Hora, just a few miles outside of Prague.  I quickly got the impression that they were once sister cities, and maybe even rivaled each other in this Bohemian province of the Holy Roman Empire.  A name that I only vaguely remembered from my history lessons, Jan Hus, is all over this town.  He was a Czech priest who lived in this area back in the early 15th century.  It turns out that Hus read a little too much John Wycliffe, and decided that the Catholic Church was corrupt in its practice of Indulgences.  He began to openly preach this and against other Church doctrines.  At the time, Bohemia was part of the Holy Roman Empire, and to defy the Catholic Church on fine points of dogma was to not only commit heresy, but also treason.  There was a long series of Church Councils, trials and papal schisms during this time, but the short story is that Jan Hus quickly found himself excommunicated.  He was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1415.

After the execution, nearly the entire population of Bohemia remained loyal to Jan Hus, and revolted against the Catholic Church.  During the next 15 years, the Pope instituted five separate Crusades against the followers of Jan Hus, now known collectively as the Hussite Wars.  And this brings me back to my visit in Kutná Hora

I felt like an ignorant hick, looking at all the monuments to the Hussite Wars, and trying to recollect the dim memory of what they were.  We visited the historical museum, and even though there were no guides or signs in the English language, we saw pikes, spears, maces and other weapons, along with contemporary paintings of their use.  Using these weapons to personally crush or impale another human over dogma disputes is savage to me, but history is not a Disney movie.  We visited the silver museum and learned how Kutná Hora gained its fortune and importance from the region’s famed silver mines.  We also learned as an almost trivial fact, that there were so many dead bodies left in the wake of the Hussite Wars, that corpses were simply tossed into the mines.  We visited the beautiful Baroque Gothic church, Chrám Nanebevzetí Pany Marie.  Like most of these old churches in Czech Republic, it still conducts mass, but is today mostly used as a museum and cultural marker.  Inside were hung paintings depicting the Hussite Wars.  Again, no signs or guides were printed in English, but I could make still make out the graphic depictions of slaughter as righteous acts of God.  Just across the street from the Chrám Nanebevzetí Pany Marie was the grim Sedlec Ossuary.

The Sedlec Ossuary - popularly known to tourists as The Bone Church.  I tried to gain an introspective feeling at the Sedlec Ossuary, but for some reason I could not.  I still do not know quite what to feel about the place.  There were signs printed outside the church (including one in English) that warned visitors to remember that the church was now home to between 40 and 70 thousand people who were killed in the Hussite Wars, and to please remember to be respectful on the church grounds.  The small church, now known as an ossuary, or bone box, was one of the strangest sights I have ever seen.  Apparently, so many people were killed in this region during the Hussite Wars, that there was no room to bury them all.  So they were placed where room could be found.  Renovations to the Chrám Nanebevzetí Pany Marie still turn up bodies buried in the church’s foundation, and a couple of them were even on display.  But the small Sedlec chapel in Kutná Hora had won fame because it was the site where a pilgrim had once sprinkled dirt that he had collected from Golgotha, the sight of the Crucifixion.  What better place to bury the countless numbers of dead?  It already had a famous cemetery because of the legendary dirt from Golgotha, so bodies had to be exhumed to make room for the sudden influx of new casualties from the war and placed inside the chapel.  Upwards of 70,000 of corpses were stuffed into the Sedlec chapel.  Beginning in the early 16th century, various efforts were made to clean the Sedlec Ossuary out, but final work was done in 1870 when a woodsmith named František Rint was commissioned to display the bones in an orderly fashion. 

Rint took the commission and created one of the most visited tourist attractions in the Czech Republic, but also one of the most beautiful and disturbing pieces of art I have ever seen.  The chapel is still surrounded by the old graveyard with the legendary dirt sprinkled from Golgotha, and walking past the tour buses and concession booths I walked inside.  The signature of the artist František Rint was plastered to the wall, created entirely out of human bones.  To the left was the Coat of Arms of the artist’s benefactors, again created entirely out of human bones.  The chapel itself was morbid, fascinating, beautiful, disturbing and reverent all at the same time.  Bones from some 70,000 people were artistically arranged, piled, stacked and organized in a way that left me speechless.  Alternating patterns of skulls and crossbones were interwoven along the wall tiles.  Two enormous altars of bone stood in the main sanctuary.  The bones were used with stunning ingenuity.  Hip bones and shoulder blades were fanned in a circular pattern around a group of skulls as a kind of macabre halo. Bone arrangements hung from the ceiling in a way that reminded me of marionettes.  Candle holders were made of arrangements from spinal vertebra.  Everything, the choir loft, the pulpit, even the ceiling tiles, was overlaid with a mosaic of human bones.  The enormous chandelier that was in the center of the chapel was also ingeniously created entirely out of human bones.  Finally, the four alcoves where I would normally see an altar or confession booth in any other traditional Catholic Church were piled to the ceiling with human bones.  Each pile was arranged in a pyramid shape, and included two skulls that guarded a candle holder arranged into the stack of bones.  

Visiting this chapel and wandering around the graveyard left me a little drained.  So we left for the nearest food court and indulged in more of that famous Czech sausage and beer!