Bone Church of Sedlec: Adventure of architecture and wonder of pilgrims
It became an adventure of architecture and wonder of visitors in 1870 when the Schwarzenberg family asked the woodcarver Frantisek Rint to arrange the bones and skulls architecturally and artistically.
By Joe Palathunkal
At 64 kilometres from Prague, Capital of the Czech Republic in Central Europe, at Sedlec in Kutna Hora, you will find a strange pilgrim spot: a church made of bones and skulls. It was made of the skulls and bones of nearly 70000 people who died in the Black Death or the pandemic Great Plague that snatched away the life of 200 million people in Europe between AD 1347 and 1351 and the dead in the Hussite Wars.
This strange Roman Catholic chapel beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints is in fact a crypt which became the most visited pilgrim spot and tourist attraction in the Czech Republic annually drawing an estimated two hundred thousand or two lakh people. Czech Republic with one core population and Prague with twelve lakh, this is indeed a large number.
But when King Otkar II of Bohemia sent abbot Henry of Cistercian monastery to Holy Land in 1278 AD, he never imagined things would turn out this way. Henry brought some amount of earth from Golgotha and sprinkled it on the abbey cemetery and the news spread around and the cemetery became a favourite burial ground of Central Europe. From the bones and skulls of this cemetery came up the Bone Church of Sedlec: adventure of architecture and wonder of pilgrims.
In 1511 AD a half-blind Cistercian monk was given the task of exhuming and stacking the bones and skulls in the crypt to make room for more burials and the monk arranged it in an artistic way and eventually it became the only church of its kind in the world.
But it became an adventure of architecture and wonder of visitors in 1870 when the Schwarzenberg family asked the woodcarver Frantisek Rint to arrange the bones and skulls architecturally and artistically and as a result a mere ossuary has become a bony chapel reminding us of what the prophet Ezekiel said in chapter 37 of his book: “He brought me out and led me in spirit to the middle of the valley which was full of bones.”
When he got the job Rint told the bones what the Lord told Ezekiel’s dry bones: “I am going to put spirit in you and make you live” and as a result we have today this avant garde church to visit and wonder at the collective genius of the Czech people.
A very large chandelier of bones hangs from the centre of the nave and the chandelier has one of every bone in human anatomy, and coupled with the skulls draping the vault make one wonder whether this avant garde architecture wonder should be called a skull church or bone church. Together with piers and monstrance of bones sidling with the altar and the entrance to the crypt also made of bones, give this ossuary-chapel an exotic look.
I am sure, this amazing architectural wonder is unknown to most in India and I myself came to know about it from my own sister-in-law Sibi and her husband Sunny Myladumpara from Kaipuzha, Kottayam, now settled in London, who paid a visit to this astonishing Roman Catholic chapel in August 2018 along with their two kids Emil and Elvy. I felt it is worth sharing with many which has been subject of artistic works like films and books.
The most famous ones are a centenary film in 1970 by Jan Švankmajer to make Rint’s genius known to the world, a descriptive reference of this chapel in Dan Cruickshank’s Adventures in Architecture, and it is also a major plot device in John Connolly’s novel The Black Angel. Whatever it may be nobody can deny that it is indeed the artistic genius of František Rint whose soul’s touch is very much evident everywhere on the chapel.
Though the Bone Chapel may have a macabre look like the engraving “The Vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones” by Gustave Dore on Ezekiel’s prophecy, nobody can deny the artistic beauty of both. And so it is worth visiting if not as a pilgrim but at least as someone who has a heart for the art.
(Joe Palathunkal is Associate Editor, Living in Faith)