Travelling Weird: The Bone Church of Prague
Some people keep their skeletons in their closets. Other people turn them into decorative art?
A few days back I bit the bullet and purchased my plane ticket to Europe. It’ll be my third trip across the pond, and every time I go, I venture a little farther. It’s been previously stated that I’m big into visiting cemeteries amidst the art museums and various nooks and side streets, but I’ll take on the occasional cathedral if it’s there. (Notre Dame was in my way in Paris, really. When you’re standing under it’s massive shadow and don’t have anything better to do — why not, right? Ha.) Mostly, though, I favour weird travel, and I’ve found a few gems.
In Rome, for example, there’s this beauty:
Before we even got within spitting distance, they gave us a warning: The Capuchin church might make some of the more sensitive of you uncomfortable. The guide will rattle through some of the basic facts: Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins was founded by Pope Urban VIII in 1626 and in its crypt contains the bodies of four thousand friars as well as a few poor Romans. It’s a little on the small side to hold 4,000 bodies, I thought to myself.
They refer to it as a “Memento Mori” which immediately catches my attention. Years studying classical art has primed me for this. It’s a red flag. I’m all ears and prepared to shove the people in front of me out of the way. Translated from Latin, it means, “Remember your death,” or, ‘Remember you’re going to die.”
Why so macabre, you might ask?
Because Memento Mori art is frequently characterized by skulls as a motif that reflects on the body’s transient nature. And I love skulls.
When you get inside the crypt, you’re greeted by thousands of yellow grinning faces.
The arrangements are for the most part Baroque and Rococo style. In 1631, Cardinal Antonio Barberini, who was a member of the Capuchin order, had the remains of thousands of Capuchin friars exhumed and transferred from Via dei Lucchesi to the crypt like he was trying to keep the whole posse of friars together in the afterlife. The arrangements of the bones originate from a time in history when it wasn’t uncommon for sermons to be preached with a skull in hand — this is a cult of the dead at its best. (Spacial limitations in the crypt notwithstanding, they had to figure out something to do with all those bones, right?)
A sign hangs in the chapel that reads, in three languages: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”
You may have stood on a Paris street with a baguette under your arm, a box of macarons in a fist, and a bottle of wine waiting for you for the evening and not known that below your feet stretch thousands of miles of underground chambers. I’m not talking about the subway.
With the trailer for As Above, So Below in circulation, the media’s gotten it’s first taste of the ossuaries beneath Paris’ streets with a little slap of the supernatural to boot. If there are two films that I need to see this year to scare myself senseless, this is one of them.
The film refers to the catacombs as a “mass grave” that contains six million bodies. It’s actually an ossuary, just like the Capuchin crypt, except, well — a really big one. While many passages are open to tourists and cataphiles alike, there’s still a ton of subterranean Paris that is inaccessible, difficult to explore, and downright dangerous — hence the premise of the movie.
The Parisian catacombs were opened in the late 18th century as a result of overpopulation. Too many bodies for burial in the city’s cemeteries; too many old bones causing cave-ins in the city’s infrastructure. It took two years to empty the cemeteries, resulting in a mix of bones below ground that barely resembled the stacked structures that characterize the catacombs today.
All this morbid inspiration took seed elsewhere in the world, which brings me to the little town of Sedlec on the outskirts of Kutna Hora in Prague. It’s the last leg of my upcoming two-week trip, but after visiting Rome and Paris, eventually you figure you’re going to have to hit central Europe. You stop worrying about language barriers, and learn how to doodle little caricatures of the places you want to visit while trying to get directions from the locals. (I don’t speak Czech, clearly. I don’t speak Italian either, except for “Gelato” and “Pizza” which served me very well the first time I visited.) Having said that, you might run into the Czech version when googling: Kostnice v Sedlci, which I will use here for simplicity.
Kostnice seems to have drawn inspiration from the Capuchins in Rome. An unassuming gothic church on the outside, the Roman Catholic ossuary boasts between 40,000 to 70,000 bodies. It’s not as intense a number as the catacombs, but when it comes to the bone church of Prague, you quickly learn that sometimes you need to regard the quality of artistry over the quantity.
There aren’t too many places in the world that can boast a chandelier made of human bones.
The skull garlands are particularly impressive. There’s supposed to be at least one of every bone in the human body featured in that chandelier.
Other interesting arrangements at Kostnice include a coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg, a Franconian and Bohemian aristocratic family. Princes of the Holy Roman Empire, basically.
Makes me want to consider how I intend to dispose of my own remains, someday.
Plans to visit, any time soon?
I love all three of those places. Spent my birthdays in two of them! Have you seen Paul Koudounaris’s Empire of Death? Full of tempting ossuaries to visit.
I have not, but it sounds like its right up my alley!