Just over an hour east of the Czech Republic’s capital city of Prague lies one of the more unusual memorials that you may ever encounter: a massive ossuary (a repository for bones) in the basement of a church. Tucked away behind a stuccoed brick wall in the heart of the farming village of Sedlec, the ossuary houses the bones of approximately 60,000 parishioners in the basement of a Roman Catholic church.
The story of how and why this place came to be starts nearly 1,000 years ago, when a local abbot was sent from the nearby Bohemian monastery to Jerusalem. Among the abbot’s duties was collecting soil from Golgotha (the site where Jesus was crucified) for use as a holy relic. The soil was brought back to the area, and upon the construction of the church in the 14th century, it was sprinkled upon the grounds to make it a holy place of burial.
The monastery, church, and cemetery were all looted and burned during the Hussite wars of the 1420’s. Rebuilt during the latter part of the 15th century, it’s said that a blind monk began the work of stacking the bones within the ossuary in order to regain his vision. It was during the 16th and 17th century, however, that the work of stacking and storing the bones began to develop a more artistic flair, and by the start of the 18th century the majority of the work was completed.
The monastery was abolished towards the end of the 18th century, and the abbey and local churches were bought up by the wealthy families in the area. The Schwarzenburg family purchased the bone church in the 1780’s and created a patronage to keep the site open and available to the public.
In addition to maintaining the “collection” and expanding upon the massive central chandelier, the Schwarzenburgs also added a bony version of their family crest. The details within the crest, visible in the shots below and even moreso in the closeup shots further down, were beyond belief. Every single facet of the family crest was designed and created using nothing but human bones…. a bit morbid, perhaps, but the level of skilled craftsmanship that went into the construction of the crest cannot be overstated.
The ossuary made for a fantastic day trip during our time in the Czech Republic. Though the drive was only about an hour each way, once we were outside of Prague’s metro area, the scenery quickly morphed from the drab former eastern-bloc outskirts of the city to lush stretches of rolling farmland. The village of Sedlec is small and somewhat awkward to navigate, with a couple poorly marked traffic circles and a high-paced four lane road cutting through the heart of town. The church itself was easy enough to find, but with no parking lots to be found, on-street parking proved to be a bit of a challenge.
Once we parked and made our way over to the church, we discovered why parking was in such short supply – there was a massive line of people waiting to get into the church. Apparently, there had been a National Geographic special about the ossuary in 2017, and ever since then the influx of visitors has never slowed. I can see why, though… the bone room is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life.
Especially given the volume of people touring the facility, the space in the basement is relatively small. It was quite challenging to get photographs inside, between literally rubbing elbows with other photographers and kids taking selfies while simultaneously trying to crop other visitors out of each frame.
I must say, though, the crowd in the basement was shockingly polite. People stood back and were cautious to stay out of our way while we were taking pictures, and each photographer patiently waited their turn to get their shots. The pictures below of the Schwarzenburg bone crest give you a good idea of the difference between the shots we could get… and what we experienced in order to get those shots!
Overall, the visit was one of my favorite experiences from our two weeks in Europe. Though I’ve traveled pretty extensively through central Europe, I had never been to an ossuary before. The history of the building was quite interesting to read about, and the intricate designs built out of the bones were absolutely fascinating.
From a photographic perspective, the bone church yielded a couple of my favorite shots from the entire trip. As you see from the pictures throughout this post, individual shots can be edited in multiple different ways to yield entirely different results.
Prague’s Old Town district, or Stare Mesto, is the most beautiful cityscape I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve been there several times, and will be writing a blog about my various experiences there over the years soon enough. But the bone church captivated me in a way that I never expected, and the photographs that I was able to capture there demand to be shared. If you ever get the chance to travel abroad, be sure to spend several days in Prague, one of which should include a trip out to Sedlec!