There's really no competition when it comes to creepy cemeteries: the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic has had them all beat since the 16th century, when a half-blind monk collected the bones of more than 40,000 Black Plague victims and war casualties and interred them in this below-ground chapel in the town of Kutna Hora. The story does not end there, with all those bones sitting in little piles in a Cistercian monastery an hour from Prague. In 1860, the aristocratic Schwarzenberg family decided that the half-blind monk's bone arranging skills were not up to par, and hired a local woodcarver to spice things up a notch. The woodcarver promptly began to make bizarre animal sculptures from the bones on offer. His pièce de résistance was a chandelier reputed to contain every bone in the body.
Basically, the whole weird production started because of a renovation around 1400. One of the monastery's abbots decided that he wanted to build the Church of All Saints in the middle of an existing cemetery. Tens of thousands of graves of mostly Black Plague victims had to be dug up and rehoused in an underground chapel below the church being built. The unlucky half-blind monk was tasked with this in 1511, and he spent the rest of his life exhuming the corpses and preparing the bones for display. Essentially, he had to wait until worms removed all the flesh (a process that generally took several years), and then clean and polish the bones before stacking them into great pyramids.
This was all pretty normal in 16th-century Europe, and the Sedlec Ossuary, with its 40,000 skeletons, is not even the continent's largest (that would be the Paris Catacombs), or even the Czech Republic's largest (that would be in Brno). But it is arguably the weirdest, thanks to the artistic efforts that were undertaken around 150 years ago on behalf of the Schwarzenberg family. Today, the gothic chapel is decorated with bone-birds and other animals, bone crosses, and bone heraldry. Bones are used as little ornamental flourishes, as casually as other 19th-century renovations used gilding.
The vaulted ceiling is hung with garlands of skulls, and an intensely creepy chandelier, with its seven arms of gaping skulls, serves as the chilling centerpiece of the room. Naturally, the Schwarzenberg's also commissioned an ornate version of their coat of arms to be hewn from human bones and hung on a prominent place on the wall (above left). The grand total of human remains that have become a macabre form of art in Kutna Hora numbers more than 40,000, or twice the town's living population. As the New York Times wrote a few years back, it's "the world's greatest single work of memento mori art." In all, it's enough to get some 200,000 people a year go into the Sedlec Ossuary.
Images courtesy of the Sedlec Ossuary
· Sedlec Ossuary [Official site]
· Bone Churches of Bohemia: The Sedlec Ossuary at Kutná Hora [Bohemian Blog]
· All Cemetery Wire posts [Curbed National]