Some places on this Earth resemble the setting of a Magic Realist novel. Visiting you are invited into their fictions. But where is the magic in the Bone Church of the Sedlec in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic? For over 700 years Sedlec has been a sacred place of burial. It’s crowded. Renovations over the centuries have disturbed the mass burials there. In the 16th century a half-blind monk was set the task of ordering the remains of over 40,000 dead– many from the Black Plague and Hussite wars. You can see it can’t you? The old fellow bent over the disordered mounds, labuoring myopically–the stuff of a Tarkovsky film or Monty Python sketch. I believe the four mounds of bones in each corner date from this time, but am uncertain. These structures are oddly reassuring, resembling bone ovens or wombs.
Centuries later the Swarzenberg family bought the property and hired the local woodcutter to continue this work of ordering the dead. This detail of the “local woodcutter” is repeated in texts about the bone house, but without elaboration. This “woodcutter” has taken on fairy tale proportions in my imagination. In my mind, he becomes the same woodcutter who slices out Grandmother from the sleeping wolf’s tummy in Perault’s version of Little Red Riding Hood. Performer of strange cesarians, interior decorator of tombs. He arranged the bones into fantastic garlands, monstrances and a giant chandelier as well as the Swarzenberg coat of arms . His signature in bones, “Rint 1870” adorns a spare grey space on the wall.
Unlike other ossuaries I have visited, this one is more spectacular, but also lonely despite the throngs of tourists (happily absent when we visited) and the thousands of empty eye sockets staring out at you from various decorative arrangements. Other bone churches you sense a literal extension of the medieval belief that to be buried on Church grounds or in the church would make it easier for God to find you on Judgement Day. In the Ursuline chapel in Cologne or the Capuchin Ossuary in Rome, you sense the remains have become part of the church. Not merely decoration, they have come home. The are home. Not so in Sedlec.
The ossuary has supposedly inspired many modern serial killer fictions, and one can see why. In these stories its always one man making some perverse plans for the suffering or bodies of others. The ego of the woodcutter, and the Swarzenberg family give form to the chaos of death. The Sedlec ossuary is not a quiet grave. The dead here have been shuffled and reshuffled like sticklebricks and finally arranged in the 19th century in this sculptural fantasy that resembles obsessive outsider art.
Looking closely, one can see many of the skulls bear graffiti, which is the strangest gesture of all. The longer you stay in this cold, dizzying space, the more you understand the whole ashes to ashes thing. All are the same in death. Perhaps the writing of a name– on the skull of another long dead– is a way these impostors trick themselves into thinking they are the exception?
Mike and I found ourselves drunk on the darkness of the place, we giggled nervously like children who had been scolded. We indulged in taking photos. Why did I hate myself for taking them? It seemed all I could do in the space, having given myself up to the enormity of its morbid kitsch. I was surprised at how photogenic the structures were– they convey a kind of uber-wonder-cabinet feeling that is completely missing from the in-person experience.
Seeing the Jan Švankmajer short redeemed the space for me. The visual rhymes of the snail in its shell, the collections of buttons and even the paving stones, all reveal a tenderness that is missing from the space itself. I was not able to find a copy of the banned version of the film which contains the tour guide narrative. The jazz poem version, which is what replaced the original until the Velvet Revolution, is the only one available on youtube, though it is available in the Complete Short Films on DVD. An English translation of the song-text is available on youtube here. This local website has a poetic take on the history of the bone church. It’s worth reading: we, the “living scaffolds” behold in the bone house the “x-rays of eternity”.
You can see more pictures of the Ossuary on my Flickr feed here.