The Bone House of Sedlec

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”.

To see other jewellery designs inspired by charnal houses, please visit my Etsy shop.

You can see more pictures of the Ossuary on my Flickr feed here.

Praha

My dashing alchemist on the stairs leading to our Hotel in Prague.

I have just returned from Prague. People say it is a fairy tale of a city, and you don’t really believe it. How could it be? That is, until you see it yourself.  Despite the onslaught of tourist hordes, all traveling in massive groups, the city’s dark soul survives, suggesting narratives around every bent corner.

While many beer lovers champion Czech pilsners, there are myriad microbreweries around the city making up some original, gorgeous beers that break with tradition. The best was Klasterni Pivovar, where we went every night for their special November ale.

My obsession with Czech glass beads, one of my favourite materials, was a driving force in this trip…this is the subject for another post. I found only one source in the city, and will most likely have to return after doing more research, and travel farther outside of the city.

In the Bone House, Sedlec, Kutna Hora.

We spent a day traveling to Kutna Hora, to visit the surreal ossuary of the Sedlec monastery. This also merits it’s own post– as you can see I will be writing about Prague for some time!  The Kostnice, or bone house, was relatively free of tourists on the day we went, and had the cold static of an unquiet grave about it. Not really a peaceful place at all.

Around every corner was something that inspired my jewellery, as if the whole city were talking back to me. From the Art Nouveau facades to the elaborate iron work of the heavy doors, the sparking crystals and blood red garnets winking from every tourist trap of a shop, the dark glamour of the place ameliorated a lot of the indignities of tourism. It is a testament to the power of this place, and to the Czech people. The ones we met remained gracious and warm– something the Brits of York could learn in the face of their own tourist invasions!

Alphonse Mucha inspired necklace of sterling-plated brass and Czech glass beads, in my Etsy shop.

While the Kafka museum in Prague was unforgivably pretentious, my dealings with security in Heathrow were indeed Kafkaesque.  I was retinally scanned (twice) but still interrogated by immigration, X-rayed a total of 4 times, frisked (twice) and everything in my carry on and purse dumped out and examined down to every crumpled receipt and tissue.  The second security agent pulled me out of the queue and actually lifted up my clothing so she could search inside my trousers and underwear– this was in front of the large crowd also queuing; it wasn’t a private search. It was shocking and intimidating, especially given the signs every where that say that failure to comply will lead to fines and possible imprisonment. If this is travel in the 21st century, perhaps staying home is the better option?

Check back soon for happier tales of ossuaries, beer halls and beads, beads, beads.

East Berlin TimeFall

A rose left in a fragment of the Berlin Wall

On our first night in Berlin, M and I spied a translation of Philip K. Dick in the window of a bookshop: Marsianischer Zeitsturz.  We were consumed with laughter.  Zeitsturz, time slip/fall/stumble…that’s exactly what it felt like to be here twenty years to the day after the wall  had come down.  We were time travelers dropped from space, come from the future to witness the past.

The view from our flat on Karl Marx Allee; typical Stalinist "wedding cake" apartments

East Berlin’s wide avenues and Stalinist urban planning mark out much of the city.  What I thought would be grim, mid-twentieth century modernity turned out to be soothingly elegant.  The clean, brightly tiled U-bahn stations and the grand “wedding cake” style apartment buildings on Karl Marx Allee provide a stately backdrop to everyday life, making the smallest things seem like part of a grander narrative.  In this respect, if it is at all possible to separate the dire human rights in the GDR, the planning wins at dignifying the mundane.   Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the aesthetics of the GDR-era East, makes a weird kind of sense.

A fragment of the wall

But all that is changing.  The city is busy reinventing itself yet again.  Most of the “death strip” of the wall has been built over and turned into parks.  A public installation about the wall claims that even locals can’t make out the scale of the original border.

A Starbucks sits at the foot of the old symbol of East Berlin, the Fernsehturm, like a flag on the moon. The deafening sound of industry– jackhammers and drills– follows you everywhere, even through the Topography of Terror exhibition.  This “open wound at the heart of the city” is an outdoor exhibition exhaustively documenting the orgy of sadism that was the Third Reich.  It was unseasonably cold as I made my way from panel to panel mounted on the chain-link fence.  Numbed physically and emotionally, I reached the end where a group of teenage girls huddled together singing brazenly at tasteless volume, Whitney Houston’s hit from 1987, “I Want to Dance with Somebody.” Their hair peroxided beyond Aryan-ness, their eyes darkened with too much kohl, they dressed in the over-sized layers of the mid 80s, a style from before they were born, before the wall had fallen.  Zeitsturz indeed.

Dusk at the Holocaust Memorial

My friend Carolyn said that when she went to the Holocaust Memorial, German teenagers were displaying similarly disrespectful behavior, playing hide-and-seek amongst the gargantuan plinths.  We went at twilight, when only the dimmest of lights illuminated the maze of sarcophagi which grow as you enter, the cobblestones at your feet slanting and dipping.  Before we got too deep M said to me, “If we lose each other, where should we meet?” which seemed poignant, imbuing the monument with a metaphoric, empathetic narrative.  Walking the structure you glimpse others passing by, and then they vanish in the claustrophobic space.

Display case in Alexanderplatz

It is difficult not to dwell on the wounds of the city, though to do so risks a ghoulish curiosity.  Or is it bearing witness?  Because I couldn’t answer this question I did not go to any of the prison or concentration camp sites, though I considered it, I was more interested in signs of life. They are everywhere.  Alexanderplatz features glass cases of mimeograph machines, children’s stamp sets and silkscreens used to make illegal zines before the Mauerfall.  I remember these machines from my childhood,  their pungent smell and rhythmic sound. Here they were used for something much more risky and important than my multiplication tables. Though through my cold war childhood I learned to be terrified of my own government, its senile leader. Fresh ink on worksheets for Social Studies, defining Mutually Assured Distruction.  This was not some remote history.  Looking at the photo murals in the square of people climbing the wall in 1989, people who looked just like my friends and me at the time– young, determined and maybe a little crazy; I was reduced to tears.

Another Country, a bookstore specializing in English language used books, operates as a kind of lending library and gathering place for the vibrant ex-pat community in Berlin.  Every month they have dinner and a movie there for a fiver, and the place is packed with English speakers catching up with each other.  There I met this warm man with the round, lazy vowels of a SoCal native.  He was, of course, from El Monte.  He explained the why if not the how of being there, “Berlin chooses you, not the other way around.”

SoCal followed us around Berlin, in fact.  At White Trash Fast Food, over our amazing veggie burgers and chili fries (Just like famous Tommy Burger’s but vegetarian), we marveled at the DJ’s selections in this uber-cool rockabilly bar– the first song was White Girl by X, and then the selections grew increasingly obscure, focusing on early SoCal punk rock.  The crazy thing is that maybe for the Germans this was pastiche Americana but to the expats in the place, it was the home you could no longer find at home. So to speak.

Another American badgered me at the Tacheles, an artists’ squat in a bombed-out department store.  The New Yorker insisted I looked “scared,” and decried my cursory glance at his mediocre paintings, “What’s with you? You come to an art show but don’t look at the art?” Nothing else that I could see was much better, but the space itself was marvelous it its apocalyptic grandeur.  In the past the art must have been better.  It would have had to have been.

Americans have flocked here it seems. Perhaps because this place offers a glimpse of what our country is supposedly famous for: freedom.  Here, it’s been hard won, though to see that you would have to look past the tourists posing with a “border guard” at the reconstructed Checkpoint Charlie, or past the stalls selling Russian kitsch in front of the Brandenburg gate.

Here is a list of more favourite places:

La Mano Verde, Weisbadener Str. 79, posh vegan eatery, a bit expensive but worth it.  I had the raw beet ravioli and farmer’s nuggets in jus with German potato salad and divine chocolate mousse.  Comfort food extraordinaire, but done lightly.  The service was attentive but unfussy.

G for Goulash— this intimate eatery only has two tables and a bar, and it only serves Goulash– but it’s veggie heaven.  They will make their delish stew with seitan if you don’t eat meat– absolutely amazing.  They also do takeaway, serving the stew in a pretty, re-useable glass jar.

Chagall Cafe on Schonhauser Str– a dark, candle-lit cafe with chipped walls and wooden benches, perfect  for a tryst if you’ve got one planned. They specialize in Russian food– while we were there everyone was bent intently over their steaming bowls of borscht.  They have many vegetarian options.  We went with the vat of garlic cream and bread, drinking many beers here.  The service here was warm, welcoming and exceptional.

Hops and Barley microbrewery–Wühlischstr 22/23. This is a small brewery run by two wonderful guys who really care about beer.  When I was in they had an amber on that was gorgeous, and their cider was a quite tart but not too dry– dangerously drinkable.  Every beer I had there was a winner, and they play Old School (SoCal) punk rock on the stereo.

The Medical History Museum, butting up against what used to be the “death strip” before the Mauerfall, is worth checking out. Gallstones like false dice are displayed in jewel cases.  Fetal anomalies, tattooed skin fragments, and surgical instruments on the third floor are humanized by the narrative displays on the fourth which feature stories of individual patients.  Objects from the collection are used to illustrate their “cases”, and these artifacts– from a crocheted bonnet, rusted bed or false nose, take the initial displays beyond side-show voyeurism.

Kathe Kollwitz Self Portrait

The Kathe Kollwitz Museum, an impressive collection of the artists major works, is housed in this rather posh shopping area in the west.  Her work was important to me as a teen.  After seeing her lithographs in high school, I majored in printmaking in college.  Seeing her familiar work again now, images I used to train my eye and hand, was like seeing an old friend who you’ve outgrown.  While the emotional urgency of the images of “War against War” seems exhausted to me now, it is essential in understanding Berlin, a place that resisted the Nazis even as they consumed the city, and a place that eventually ushered in this most modern of revolutions, the end of the Cold War.  In Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood argues that even as the Nazis march through the streets of Berlin, the city doesn’t belong to them but to the workers, the people who sang out in defiance.  Looking at the room of Kollwitz’s self portraits one sees the face of a Berliner– earthy, candidly ironic and freedom-bent.

I gratify my malice through quiet neutrality

I have just returned to London from a short visit in Los Angeles where it is entirely possible to make a hobby out of spotting the rich and famous. The only catch is that one must be fully engaged in popular culture to partake of this type of safari, and I am not.

Flying out of Los Angeles is particularly amusing as the rich and famous are paraded in front of you as they pre-board in first class. Before entering the limbo of missing time that is transcontinental air travel, I watched the privileged show their passports as proof out of monkey class. Some were obviously British– in Saville Row suits and semi-ironic haircuts, some were strategically unkempt but inoffensive– obviously from some Coldplay clone band I know nothing of. And there was one who boarded after them made who eye contact with me, sliding his sunglasses down his nose as if to say, “I know you know who I am,” and offering me a half-smile, like a crumb to a duck. Except I didn’t know who he was beyond his shiny ginger shag and suede blazer which screamed rich Topanga hippie.

As I peruse the dry array of businessmen boarding, someone bumbles up to the front of the line looking disoriented. He pulls up his dirty track pants which were riding low, and shifts his weight in plastic clogs. He coughs up a lung cookie before he can state his business to the staff. I thought, dear god please don’t let this crazy man be seated next to me please. As the staff examine his documents he smooths his dyed black hair with girlish care. And then the staff wave him through to first class. He was uncannily familiar. Who was he?

My first thought was, he sure looks a lot like Mario the Plumber from Donkey Kong. I forgot about it until we boarded the plane and I heard this guy in back of me call his cousin in India to discuss this. He said, “I do not like to admit how I know this, but I have seen a famous pornography actor. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME? I have seen Ron Jeremy, the famous actor from pornography films. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

I have never understood this impulse to report– though one could argue I am falling prey to it right now. I find the obligatory acknowledgment of the famous a kind of indignity, especially if they have done something I can’t respect, which is usually the case. I rarely see anyone I admire. Though once I did see Stephen Merchant at Shakespeare’s Globe before a performance of The Merchant of Venice. I indulged in a moment of crushed-out glee at the solitude and sheer height of this man who has made me laugh, and then I hated myself both for not saying anything to him and for wanting to.

Ron Jeremy as Shylock. There’s a thought. If you prick us, do we not bleed? Ah, to be back in London, where anonymity and the enormity of history levels all, the famous and obscure. What a relief it is.

All I ask is a tall stone and a star to steer her by…

M and I have returned from the Orkneys, and now that I have internet access, I can write about it.

We spent 10 days traveling around Aberdeenshire, visiting standing stones and traveling around the Orkney Islands. There, we ate the local bread called bere bannock with mild Orcadian cheese and lots of amazing local beer. We also crawled around a lot of neolithic tombs.

Once you get the hang of finding neolithic sites on OS maps, there is a danger of being a sort of trainspotter about it. Traveling by car, one can easily forget these ancient places are part of the local imagination– living, distinct and fantastical sites.

But on occasion there will be a stone circle that will remind you of this– one such circle was outside an abandoned farmhouse in Aberdeenshire. There were the usual territorial bulls about, but what bothered me was something else. Once, while I was climbing a hill fort in the South of England, I had the strangest sensation of something riding on my shoulders– an odd little gleeful being, only slightly malevolent. It was a disturbing feeling, and I didn’t shake it until I’d reached the roadside.

This circle had a similarly sinister, fey aspect. In the long wet grass surrounding the circles– which were now in wild disarray– no flowers grew, but inside the ring flowers bloomed in nodding white and yellow bunches. Charming, if there weren’t such a forlorn feeling pervading the place. I think often when Neopagans visit sites they infuse them with something, new folklore, new stories and hopes. And I think these things linger. But some circles are hardly visited at all, except by the things we can’t see or know. This circle belonged to such things. Approaching it I felt a cold pull inside, and a dizzy feeling. I decided to hurry back to the car, my skin all gooseflesh, but M went on without me to the recumbent stone circle, climbing over barbed wire to get to the next circle beside it, and I watched him go, uneasy.

Of course nothing happened. Except that while I waited cows called pathetically into the wind. This is beef country and I find it difficult to reconcile the sufferings of these animals, even if they are not being factory farmed.

Some stones are visited by too many people– overly husbanded by the National Trust. Stonehenge is the worst example of this. Other stones are visited mostly by creatures, and still others are kept company by the alien and “conquering” faithful. Christians. This recumbent stone circle, pictured above, had a churchyard built around it, despite or perhaps because of its horned stones flanking the altar. In Julian Cope’s book The Modern Antiquarian, he describes this circle as looking like the horned good surfacing from the earth, and that’s no lie. It makes the the brittle headstones around it look like chessmen lost on the board of a forgotten game.

I’m sure this is why I keep coming to these places and why they haunt me– that sly feeling of triumph. Everyone wants to be affirmed by an iconographic landscape, something that codes your beliefs into the land and makes them bigger than the notion of the self or even of time.

All around this country, lichen covered blood-red stones count the stars, and they have marked our travels.

And, tomorrow, it’s on your knees, pilgrim

 

…just don’t mention the war…

Two weeks in Bavaria was definitely not part of the original plan, but things have conspired against us. Through the generosity of our friend Nicky, we have a place to crash in Munich and he’s been showing us around, driving to many Bavarian breweries where I’ve been sampling all the dunkles I can find.

But I must admit I’m weary of sitting around with people who are eating pig knuckles and roasted baby animals. It’s meat, meat meat at every meal. Sometimes meat is the lightest option available on the menu, as the vegetarian stuff is full of butter and cheese. I’ve been living on salty pretzels and beer and now my extremities are swollen from water retention.

Edie is back in the Netherlands, trying to get some work done on the Something’s Brewing piece at the University of Utrecht. Bob and I will be joining her in less than a week. Apparently on her way to Utrecht via train someone threw themselves in front of the tracks. As she was in the first car right behind the driver, she saw the driver go into shock. This must happen a lot, as when M and I were traveling to Vienna someone threw themselves on the tracks and I felt it go “bump”. When this whole piece of Edie’s comes off, in whatever form it takes, it will be an heroic piece of art making, no lie.

Earlier in the week, we trudged up the mountain to Neuschwanstein, the castle which inspired Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” castle in the heart of Disneyland. I’d already been there and I preferred it last time as the winter fog softened its plastic-looking, 19th century edges. There were so many tourists, I bailed on the tour. While everyone else went inside I waited and watched the stream of humans going in and out, many of them American or Japanese tourists in bright, casual clothes that made them look like children– engaging in a second-hand fantasy. All aberrations removed from the fairy tale in favor of the most mundane of happy endings.

Stern conformity still hangs heavy over Munich, despite locals’ insistence that “the past is history” and that Bavaria is part of a tolerant, modern EU state. The uneasy pact with the past is all too present. And this brutal history is all too similar to what it is happening in my own country. In school, history always seemed to stop at the Nazi invasion of Poland– the summer would come before we ever got Korea or Viet Nam.

One person my age I’ve met here said she was too young to remember the war, so why talk about it all the time? But how can I not think about it when my own government cynically uses the holocaust and the “good war” as a metaphor for their bloody and bankrupt foreign policy?

At the start of our visit to Bavaria, were in the little house in Rieder, in the countryside, with my friend Nicky. After the war, this house sheltered men coming home from the front, wanderers lost in the chaos after surrender. We cooked on the wood burning stove and watched a cat stalking through the grass. Everything was green and lush outside. Cows luxuriated in the fields, their bells ringing. Poppies nodded in the wind and I still thought of war. It was impossible to be there and not feel the surreality of peace. I wonder about the ambiguity of this place, so near Dachau– idyllic and terrible at the same time. Nicky is full of stories from the woman, his mother-in-law, who grew up in the country house. She said that after the war you would see all these children running around wearing red trousers. Their mothers had cut up the Nazi flags. Got to use them for something.

Before Edie left, we went to the Haus der Kunst and I was amazed by the architecture– the old glass building was rebuilt in a heavy neoclassical style by Paul Ludwig Troost, according to Hitlers vision (himself a mediocre painter). The iron doors and massive columns support the roof’s clean, soulless planes. Some buildings give themselves away, and insist on the past even through present reinvention– the Haus der Kunst is such a place. Ivy has tried to grow over the surface, leaving dead veins to mark the cold stone– which resembles more a giant mausoleum rather than an art museum. The pictures of the Degenerate Art Show, hung in a corridor by the toiletten, revealed the Nazi’s mythopoesis of hatred. Perhaps one of my fascinations with WWII is that it always seems so shockingly allegorical.

The Haus der Kunst was currently showing Georg Petel’s Baroque sculptures of crucifixions and meaty Saint Sebastians. I peeked at the catalogue and the stuff seemed Mannerist in its purposeful distortions and risks. I would assume he was working from corpses as the tortured bodies of his sculptures were obsessively rendered. I’ve had enough in-your-face-meat to last me for a while, so I skipped out on that and instead sat watching the Gilbert & George video, a preview of their upcoming show which is now at the Tate. It was in English, and as I listened to them finishing each other’s sentences, I was surprised at their sincerity. Why had I thought they would be ironic and distant, speaking in riddles? Gilbert is Italian but has been with George in Spitalfields for 40 years now. They are Londoners, and I understand their work now, more than before, because now I am a Londoner, too. Unlike Munich, London makes room for the passionate eccentric, the willful iconoclast. How I miss it.

Beer, Bombs and Bones

A token representation of the 11,000 VirginsEdith, Bob and I are in Cologne. Yesterday we went to another brewery, strictly for research purposes, of course. The Pfeffen kölsch served there was very different there from the kölsch at Fruh– fruitier and more like an ale– a bit like Fuller’s Discovery, but with a creamier head, more carbonation and served much colder. I drank it with the seasonal dish– asparagus with Holländische sauce, potatoes and salad. It was delish.

We also went to the Roman museum whose impressive collection is mainly gleaned from the 1941 discovery of a Roman settlement adjacent to the Dom. The site was discovered while digging to build an air raid shelter.

I was particularly fascinated with the delicate and almost ephemeral Hellenistic gold work as well as the “local deities”– Celtic & Germanic goddesses whose names are unmentioned. They resemble the Ursuline virgins in the Ursulaplatz with their benevolent smiles and diadem coiffures. Like the virgins, these goddesses are now decorative objects. Moon-headed, they sit in threes on little couches, the triple goddess present as trifling objects next to the monumental columns of Jupiter’s temple, souvenirs from a forgotten destination.

Three impressive floor mosaics are almost entirely preserved. One features a pattern of swastikas. One can only imagine the sense of vindication the Nazis might have felt uncovering this, even as they were burrowing for shelter from the bombs that would eventually destroy the city.

The souvenir shops are full of black and white postcards depicting the city in ruins. Here is an image of the damage Köln endured in WWII. The Dom remains standing, and the smog-blackened facade greets you as you leave the train station. No matter where you are in Köln, you can find your way via the spires of the Dom.

Cologne is a city that wears its scars proudly, incorporating fragments of the old, pre-war buildings in the modern restoration. Even the cobblestone streets were laid by hand again in the 1950s, giving the town a kind of postmodern melancholy.

Today we also visited the Ursulaplatz, the main reason why I was excited about visiting Köln. Many years ago I wrote a poem based on the story of Saint Ursula in the Golden Legend. The whole thing is quite grisly, as are most of the women saints’ deaths in that book. More popular than the bible at the time it was written, The Golden Legend was a kind of compiled oral hagiography. Many of the female saints in the book are almost superheroes, despite their grizly deaths, or maybe because of them. Ursula is no exception. I love the suggestive number of her entourage– 11,000– and the gory depictions of mass slaughter. Campy blood and guts! Even the doors of the Ursulaplatz feature the headless bodies of the virgins piled atop one another. The story of Ursula has always suggested to me an “open” space in the patriarchal medieval church– a willful woman would leading an army of girls down the Rhine– it suggests many subversive possibilities. I’m sure I’m not the first to imagine the story another way, and maybe this is the reason for the sadistic deaths of many of the female saints in the Golden Legend. A strong woman is safer dead, rewarded and silent in heaven– but I digress.The Ossuary of Ursulaplatz
Above shelves of Reliquaries, the bones spell out latin words. (photo by Edith Abeyta)

The impressive ossuary in the Ursulaplatz supposedly contains the bones of the virgin martyrs. However, history seems to suggest these bones were from a mass grave of some sort, and in order to explain the multitudes, the story was embroidered. One version has monks digging the bones up and putting them back together so that some of the virgins actually materialize again in Frankensteinian fashion. Whatever fable one attaches to this morbid spectacle, it is impossible to not see it as a kind of percursor to the modern horror movie, but it also transcends this facile comparison and becomes something more: a consoling attempt to make whole a brutal array of fragments– a poetic display of remains, not unlike Cologne itself.