The Skeletons of Sedlec: A Sacred Gallery of Art

Skeletons of Sedlec. Flickr/michael 7601
Skeletons of Sedlec. Flickr/michael 7601

It’s the skulls we see first as we stand on the stairs. Human skulls at the tips of the up-curving arms of the chandelier are proud and poised high on platter-like collars of overlapping hipbones.

Dropping from each in a swooping arc, back and up to a central column, a line of ulnas hangs, bleached and straight, on a rope of vertebrae-like fringe. The central column itself is composed of sacrum, patella, and radii; decorative chains of mandibles help distribute the weight. This chandelier contains every bone in the human body at least once. And it is beautiful.

The décor at the entrance of the ossuary offers a hint of what’s to come.
The décor at the entrance of the ossuary offers a hint of what’s to come.
Welcome to the Sedlec ossuary, located in the Czech Republic, 70 kilometers (43 miles) southeast of Prague. This unique attraction lures the morbidly curious to the outskirts of this medieval silver town then dashes preconceived notions.

An ossuary is a bone yard, a storage place for human bones, and is usually a secondary burial place with the primary being the grave or crypt. Many religions practice exhumation, whereby after a number of years in the first burial location, skeletons are removed to an ossuary where they can be viewed and prayed over.

Throughout history, ossuaries have been used to house relics, or remains, of saints and popes, and many of the faithful make pilgrimages to ossuaries to look upon them.

In the Middle Ages, when bodies were exhumed and found to be unusually well preserved, the condition of the corpse was believed to imply purity of soul and the remains would be put on display.

The Sedlec bones were exhumed more than 500 years ago for practical reasons.

Belonging to Bohemia’s first Cistercian monastery, the cemetery became sacred in 1278. Soil from Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, was spread there by a monk who had returned with it after a diplomatic mission to Jerusalem.

Bone church
Bones from an alleged 40,000 skeletons or more were used to create chalices, crowns, scepters, pyramids and many more unique pieces of art. Flickr/Lyn Gateley

The graveyard became a favored place to be buried, and, by the 15th century, after the addition of many corpses of victims killed by plague and Hussite wars, was almost full. A church of All Saints was then built in the middle of it with a chapel below to house exhumed bones.

Their removal from the soil meant more Christians could be buried in this sacred ground. There the bones sat, piled in pyramids, for hundreds of years.

In 1870 the monastery was owned by the Schwarzenberg noble family, who hired Frantisek Rint, a Czech woodcarver, to organize the bones. He created sculptures from an alleged 40,000 complete human skeletons. Throughout the room are crowns and scepters sculpted from ball joints, finger and rib bones and scapulas.

There are family crests and candelabras made of thighbones, arm bones and hip sockets. Chalices, pinnacles, pyramids and coats of arms, all in exquisite detail, are every part made of bone. The signature of Rint himself adorns a piece of one wall, delicately picked out in finger bones.

The Schwarzenerg Coat of Arms is just one of the Coats of Arms on display. Note the intricate details, such as a bird pecking eye of a Turk.
The Schwarzenerg Coat of Arms is just one of the Coats of Arms on display. Note the intricate details, such as a bird pecking eye of a Turk.
Make no mistake about it; the Ossuary in Sedlec is an art gallery. It elicits the same reverent tones from visitors, the same openmouthed awe, the same studying with subdued voices and the same desire to touch, knowing one shouldn’t. It elicits the humbling sense of being in a place of wonder and awe.

If You Go

Sedlec-info Ossuary

Helen Paris Riemer has been traveling widely with a small backpack since 1978. Her articles have appeared in national newspapers and local periodicals, as well as online in various travel and women’s websites. She is publisher of The Single Woman’s Guide,, and is currently working on the Sam Morales series of novels – Women’s travel fiction with a social conscience.


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