by David Sturm
The bone church of Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic is on a dead-end street. It has no parking lot, no racks of postcards, no ice cream vendors, no play area for kids.
It can be found at the end of a tree-lined lane where an immense iron gate set in a crumbling stone-and-brick wall admits into a small graveyard surrounding a medieval church. A dirt path winds through marble headstones and tilting iron crucifixes. The path ends in front of the church where are set, in a gothic arch, two ancient wooden doors, one of them open.
Inside the doors, a landing opens to a broad staircase leading down to a chapel set below the church above. It is dim down here -- only two high windows and a few recessed wall lamps shed light.
On weekday mornings, when the tourists buses haven't yet arrived, the only sound in the sepulchral silence is your own footsteps. That's the best time to try and fathom what was in the mind of the man who did all this -- fashioning the bones of 40,000 dead persons into the macabre decorations all around you.
Overhead is an eight-foot-high bone chandelier ringed with skulls that contains every bone in the human body, many times over. Flanking the altar are two bone monstrances as big as a man, each with a skull in the center of a sunburst of femurs.
Rows of skulls perched on crossed bones fringe the arches, ribs fan out into coats of arms and leg bones form vases, crosses and candle holders. Four pyramids of skulls are topped incongruously with pink-cheeked cherubs.
Shafts of light from the gothic windows fall on four bells at least 15 feet across packed solid with bones, each behind an iron grill bearing a sign in three languages warning, "Do not try to touch the bones." On one of the grills, in a touch of whimsy, is perched a bone bird, it's long beak fashioned from a split ulna, pecking the eyehole of a dusty, jawless skull.
And there on the wall near the entrance is the signature of the artist who conceived and built this work, Frantisek Rint, spelled out delicately in an arrangement of arm and hand bones.
Rint, a Czech woodcarver, built all this in 1870, but the bones date from medieval times. The church and the grounds surrounding it, once a prosperous Cisterian Monastery, became one of the most desirable burial sites in central Europe after the local abbot returned from the Holy Lands in 1278 bearing earth from Golgotha, the site of Christ's crucifixion, which he sprinkled on the church cemetery. Word spread and the dead and about-to-die were trundled in from hundreds of miles away to find a final rest in the consecrated earth.
The burial grounds were enlarged to accommodate all who came -- 30,000 corpses by 1318 -- but that wasn't enough. A series of plague epidemics in the 14th century and the Hussite Wars in the 15th century created a serious backlog and the monks, to make more room, began in 1511 to abolish the older graves. A half-blind monk was given the task of unearthing the bones and stacking them in an immense ossuary built under the monks' All Saints Church, a short remove from their cathedral.
It is understandable that the charnel house was remodeled in the baroque style in 1710 to give these piles of bones a more aesthetic resting place, but it is unknown why the monks commissioned Rint in 1870 to transform the bone piles into the wall-to-wall skeletal decor you can see today. An information sheet handed to visitors says only that the monks wished a "pleasing arrangement" of the bones.
Once, candle-lit masses of requiem were held in the bone church on Nov. 1 (All Souls' Day) and Nov. 2 (All Saints' Day), but they have been discontinued. Asked why, a young caretaker displayed a wide grin and only shrugged.
[The bone church -- in Czech called "kostnice" -- is located about 30 miles east of Prague in a part of the historic town of Kutna Hora called Sedlec. Free parking is available at the nearby Cathedral of the Virgin Mary and the church is down the lane across the highway. Some bus tours from Prague to the ancient silver mines and other attractions in Kutna Hora now include the bone church. The church is open daily all year from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. April through September and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year. It closes for one hour at noon. Admission is about 90 cents. It costs an additional 90 cents to shoot still photos and an additional $1.80 to take videos.]