You wouldn’t think it, when you first arrive in the fairly ordinary central European town, but Kutna Hora is the site of the most extraordinary exhibition of death you could ever wish to see. Sedlec Ossuary, aka the Church of Bones, contains somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 human skeletons. But these skeletons aren’t just laid out in neat rows, or buried underground in deep catacombs. They are celebrated and displayed as macabre sculptures for all to see. But that isn’t why I’d come.
In 2006, to supplement part-time commissioning in work, I’d taken to teaching English as a foreign language. Six months of two evening classes each week had seen me qualify with a Certificate in Teaching English to Adults. Teaching is always fun, but the by far the best part of this particular course had been the ‘practice’ students. The college where I was studying offered free English classes to provide student teachers with students and to help the newly arrived economic migrants adjust to life in the UK. Most were from what is usually, and incorrectly, called Eastern Europe: Czechs, Poles and Slovaks. At the time I had no idea how little I knew about that part of the world, and it wasn’t until I went there that I realised how much my perceptions had been polluted and distorted by cold-war propaganda, but my European students were an welcome eye-opener.
In a previous incarnation I’d taught and trained native English professionals: police, prison and probation officers, nurses and social workers, counsellors and care workers; I’ve taught boatbuilding to boys on probation and child development to nursery nurses and, with all that under my belt, I thought I had a handle on the pace people work at and their willingness to learn. But, oh no: meet the Central Europeans and think again. Without exception, they worked their socks off. Teaching them was an absolute pleasure. Most were in their twenties or early thirties and all had come to borderless Britain to make their fortune waiting on tables, selling fast food and cleaning. Many had two or three part-time jobs, but they always turned up on time, smart and eager. And they soaked up the language like sponges. They were some of the hardest working, kindest and friendliest students I had ever had and, as a result, I vowed to go and take a look at their homeland.
After just two days, the Czech Republic was already proving to be a great place to cycle. The roads were great and all the people I’d met seemed intelligent and kind, and the weather in July was fantastic; 27 degrees with abundant blue skies. I’d flown from Bristol, with all my panniers and camping gear jammed into an old suitcase I’d brought back from Marrakech a few years earlier and then abandoned outside Prague airport. In 2007 you could fly from Bristol to Prague with a bicycle and a suitcase for just £30 – half the price of getting to London by train. Bargain.
On a fully loaded bike, Kutna Hora is about a day’s ride East of Prague. It’s a quiet little town. Once the second largest settlement in the Republic, and made its money from silver mining in mediaeval times. I was just passing through on my way to Krakow with, as usual, an open heart, an open mind and very little planning; in fact, none at all. I stopped in the main square for a coffee and a look around and started to read the local tourist posters. I discovered that there was something truly unique here.
The story begins in 1278 when King Otakar II of Bohemia sent Henry, abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec – a suburb of Kutna Hora – to the Holy Land to minister and inspire the brave and battle weary conscripts still trying to re-establish Christendom in Palestine. It was still more than a hundred years before the birth of Columbus and Copernicus, and two hundred before Galileo had had his famous run-in with Pope Urban VIII, been tried by the Inquisition and found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, forced to recant and spend the rest of his life under house arrest for the audacity of using maths and observation to propose that the Earth went round the Sun. Heaven forbid!
To most medieval Europeans, the Earth was still conveniently flat and remained where God had put it – right at the centre of the Universe, with Jerusalem at its heart. We don’t know how long Henry spent rallying the troops in the Holy Land, but when he returned he brought back a little souvenir in the form of a jar of dirt. This soil, ostensibly taken from the site of the crucifixion outside the walls of Calgary (now Golgotha), was deemed to be so imbued with Christian holiness that it would save the souls of all who touched it.
Being a man of great charity, and wanting to save as many souls as possible, Henry the abbot scattered his soil on the ground of the abbey’s cemetery in the belief that those buried there would benefit from the positive vibes and get an early-boarder’s pass to the pearly gates without having to queue for judgment with the rest of the mediaeval chavs and riff-raff. At least, that was the theory.
For a small donation of silver, you could lay your dearly departed loved one to rest in sanctified soil, regardless of their previous corruption or wickedness. This was as close as it you could get to a guaranteed happily-ever-afterlife in thirteenth century Bohemia, and made the burial ground extremely popular. Corpse-carts from across Europe headed for Kutna Hora, and delivering bodies to Sedlec became a lucrative undertaking. All went very well for the abbot and his coffers. Henry settled into a relaxed retirement as a favourite of King Otkar who, no doubt, creamed a nice little cut from the takings.
But then things got complicated. Less than 100 yrs after Henry’s return from Palestine, the last crusade to ‘rescue’ Jerusalem was lost. The Catholic Church, lacking a defeatable enemy without, turned on the enemy within. Controversy, heresy, witch-hunts and schisms within the Church were rife. In a time when people still believed mice were conjured up by air spirits if you left a pile of dirty rags in the corner, and bacterium were yet to be discovered, securing a place in heaven was of the utmost importance, lest you be eternally damned to the fires of Hell.
Being a citizen of Bohemia in the fourteenth century cannot have been a simple or secure life. The zeitgeist was riven with fear and impending doom. Wars raged between and within city-states, and peasants regularly revolted and rose up against the leaders of the multitude of small kingdoms and fiefdoms of the time. All four horseman of the apocalypse charged free across the continent, savaging the population with war, famine, pestilence and disease. And it was the latter, in the form of the Black Death, between 1347 and 1350, which killed about a third of all Europeans. The plague was taken as a sign of God’s justice being meted out upon the wicked and sinful and, consequently, they all wanted to be buried in the divine dirt of Sedlec.
So many corpses arrived that there was nowhere to bury them, and no-one to dig the graves. Cadavers were piled up as close to the burial ground as possible, and lined all the roads and lanes leading to the star-gate to heaven. With just a whiff of ergot, the hallucinogenic mould that grows on damp rye, and very common in the Bohemian diet of the day, it’s easy to see that a zombie apocalypse is no new idea.
As the threat of the Black Death receded, the population re-seeded itself and order was gradually restored to the abbey’s burial ground. Mass graves were dug and the bones buried. Around 1400 a Gothic church was built and, in 1511, another chapel was constructed to house the bones from the abolished graves. The task of exhuming skeletons and stacking the bones was given to a half-blind monk. That’s quite some penance, but his disability became an asset to the politics of desecration and, perhaps, the source of the expression of ‘turning a blind eye.’
For another 350 yrs, the bones remained stacked in enormous piles. Then, in 1870, František Rint, a carpenter with a reputation for fine coffin making, was commissioned by the House of Schwarzenberg to sort them out. Rint was evidently a creative type with time on his hands; customer service in an ossuary isn’t particularly demanding.
So, showing a flair for interior design, he used the bones to create elaborate, macabre sculptures, including four chandeliers, a crucifix-style arrangement near the main altar and the Schwarzenberg coat of arms made with every bone in the human skeleton.
The effect is mesmerising. Femurs hang in daisy-chains around the walls like bizarre Christmas decorations. Skulls are piled in carved cages three metres high in rows five metres deep, tastefully back-lit for effect; they hang from ceilings and crown arches with their disinterested presence. From any given position, a thousand empty eye sockets stare out at you through the gloom. Dusty leather buckets full of phalanges sit next to piles of pelvises. Dozens of ribs, wired together and woven into a lattice of lament, are stretched across eaves and arches. Too sacred to be crushed for fertilizer, and useless for anything else, the bones of the dead become décor – all gathered here in the irrational belief that a happier after-life for their previous owner would result from their proximity to some revered desert dust.
Outside of the medical profession, it’s rare to see a skeleton these days. Modern death is rendered almost invisible and, unless you’re in the military, mass death is a rare site indeed. But when you are faced with the remains of more than fifty thousand people, you really do get a sense of what’s gone is gone and, as Jim Morrison famously put it: “No-one here gets out alive.”
In 2007, when I cycled haplessly into the remnants of this madness, George dubblya Bush’s ‘troop surge’ into Iraq was launched – weapons of mass destruction having replaced the Black Death in the fear-psyche of the faithful, with the desert still the preferred theatre of war. The Christian neo-conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic still clung to the notion that peace can only be obtained by wresting control of an area of barren land – albeit on top of an oilfield. However far we think we have come, we are still little more than living skeletons trying to fight our way to peace while marching to the power of an idea and a handful of dirt.
I mused on this at Kutna Hora railway station which was reminiscent of the one used in The Great Escape, and which reminded me that my perceptions of this part of Europe have always been mediated by stories of war. Two weeks later, after cycling across Slovakia and over the High Tatras, I visited the monumental museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau; another telling monument to mass death and the perils of inhuman ideology.