hands down, the Sedlec Ossuary qualifies as the oddest sight of my trip. during the 13th century, an abbot from the oldest Cistercian monastery in Bohemia (in Sedlec) returned from Jerusalem with a pocketful of dirt, which he sprinkled in the monastery’s burial ground. because of this new religious consecration, the cemetery became a highly desirable location for burial among people throughout Central Europe. already packed with tens of thousands of bodies because of its association with Golgotha, the devastation wrought by the Plague during the 14th century overwhelmed the cemetery and bodies were simply piled up. in the space of only a few years, some 30,000 people died and sought burial at the Sedlec monastery.
around the turn of the 15th century, a chapel was constructed in the midst of the burial grounds and bodies displaced during excavation were placed in the ossuary beneath the chapel. for several centuries, the surplus bodies simply remained beneath the chapel, but when the Schwarzenberg family purchased the monastery in 1870, they enlisted a local woodcarver (František Rint)
to use the bones to a more creative effect.
the result of his efforts draws thousands upon thousands of people out to Sedlec every year. in addition to four pyramids of bones standing in each corner of the underground vault, Rint produced an altar, monstrances, and the Schwarzenberg coat of arms all with bones. the most remarkable piece of the collection, however, is the bone chandelier that hangs in the middle of the ceiling and contains at least one of every bone in the human body. when confronted with such magnitude of human mortality, it became somewhat hard to understand the implications of what my eyes wanted to tell me. it felt a very medieval way to confront death — inevitable, coming much sooner than one would like, a wherein the physical body loses importance because the spiritual essence has moved on to the afterlife. why place importance on the physical when such remembrances might carry profound suffering? of course, it could also be evidence of elite callousness, using the earthly remains of the anonymous masses that filled the vault of the new family chapel to create something unique and buzz-worthy.
whatever the rationale or motivation behind the project, the result remains truly remarkable, if profoundly, profoundly macabre and unsettling.
the most stunning landmark in Kutná Hora is the Cathedral of St. Barbara, begun in the late 14th century thanks to patronage from local miners and intended to rival St. Vitus in Prague for size and grandeur. in fact, the first architectural contractor was the son of the master-builder of St. Vitus. some believe that the father (who designed St. Vitus) had a hand in drawing the plans for St. Barbara as well.
|reticulated vaulting, work of Matyáš Rejsek
progress on St. Barbara, however, depended heavily on the prosperity of the mines and, to that end, construction on the church halted and resumed periodically. various designers left their marks on the cathedral as original plans were updated or amended. the vaulting changed markedly as construction progressed (as seen in the two photos to the left; the one on the top was the earlier work, the one on the bottom, the later). the dependence on the mines and miners shows in the designs throughout the Cathedral. various crests on the roof represent different miner organizations, and St. Barbara is the patroness of miners.
|helical valuting, work of Benedict Ried
as mentioned previously, money from the mines eventually dried up and the cathedral sat unfinished for more than three hundred years. rather than leave the impressive if incomplete structure open to the elements (and, obviously, unusable), a wall was thrown up in 1588 to close of what had been completed. finally, in the late 19th century the local archeological society persuaded the city to take an interest in the completion of the cathedral and construction was resumed. it took another thirty years before the plans the project completed but in 1905 the building that found its way onto the UNESCO World Heritage list was finished.
On my last full day in the Czech Republic, I took a bus out to Kutná Hora to see one last set of UNESCO World Heritage sights. during the late Middle Ages, the wealth from silver mines in the area brought the town cultural and economic prestige to rival Prague, which is less than 40 miles away. it’s somewhat hard to imagine now — a town of just over 20,000 once standing toe to toe to a city of well over 1.25 million.
the proximity to Prague also made Kutná Hora a convenient base for launching attacks during the Hussite Wars. in 1420, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund launched an unsuccessful attack on Tábor, center of the Hussite movement at the time. in response, the Hussites (led by Jan Žižka) temporarily took Kutná Hora in 1422 before imperial troops reclaimed and burned it to deter the Hussites from reclaiming the city. of course, with silver mines as large profitable as these, razing of the town didn’t deter Jan Žižka and the Hussites and thereafter followed a century of prosperity for the town.
the prosperity didn’t last, however; in 1526 the Hapsburg Empire took over the region and twenty years later the richest mine flooded. the plague ravaged the town repeatedly, as it did much of Europe, and the Thirty Years War further decimated the area. while some made attempts following the end of the war to re-open the mines, they did not succeed and by the end of the 18th century all of the mines were abandoned.