Silver, Beer and Bones in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic

Saint Barbara Cathedral in Kunta Hora, Czech Republic. Photo by Eric D. Goodman
St. Barbara Cathedral in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

St. Barbara’s Church

We’re in the middle of Bohemia, not California, but the tree-covered mountains and valleys are every bit as beautiful. From a distance, it is a sight to see, this enormous church – the Cathedral of St. Barbara — standing right over a cliff at the edge of a mountain, three giant tent-like spires reaching for the sky, buttresses along he back and smaller spires all along the sides.

Standing next to the church, along the edge of the mountain, we are at the high peak of Kutna Hora. We look down. In the distance we see a procession of white-robed figures.

“Look,” Nataliya points.

“I wonder if those are monks on a pilgrimage, or something. Maybe to St. Barbara.”

“Or Sedlec,” Brian suggests. “The ossuary.”

Nataliya, who spotted them first, is also the first to catch a reflection of the sun off a flashlight hardhat. “They’re on the same pilgrimage we were on an hour ago,” she says. “Into the silver mine.”

We turn and refocus on St. Barbara’s Church, our reason for being up on this peak. We walk around the church until we reach the front. A crowd of people are here in suits and dresses, and we see a bride and groom exit the church to cheers. We are unable to enter the church and see the marvel from the inside because a wedding is going on. But we stay and watch the wedding for a few moments before heading down, down, down.

Welcome to the Sedlec Ossuary, known as the bone church, in Kunta Hora, Czech Republic
Welcome to the Sedlec Ossuary, known as the bone church, in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Sedlec Ossuary: The Bone Church

The most unusual sight we find in Kutna Hora — and perhaps Czech Republic — is the Sedlec Ossuary, or “bone church.” It’s not a suggested stop for people who are uncomfortable around the dead. This is no ordinary church, nor is it an ordinary graveyard. The dead are the decor.

Surrounding the simple-looking church is a crowded graveyard. But inside is where most of the remains are. It is unreal, like a vision from a horror movie, the view of the church once we’ve entered. Human bones cover the walls and ceilings; everything is made of bone. A large coat of arms, all human bone, feature a raven pecking at the eye of a skull. A grand chandelier hangs from the high ceiling, all constructed of bone. In fact, although it took more than one person to make that chandelier, it features at least one of every bone in the human body. Skulls and leg bones and arm bones and entire skeletons hang from walls and rest on pedestals. The bones makeup the decorations and even the furniture in this Roman Catholic church.

The Ossuary houses at least 40,000 human skeletons. Some estimates put that number as high as 70,000. More than 200,000 living bodies come to see the Ossuary each year.

The story is that the local abbot, back in 1278, was sent by Bohemian King Otakar II to the Holy Land. Henry, the abbot, brought back dirt from Golgotha, or Calvary, the place where Jesus was crucified. Calvary is derived from the Latin term Calvaria Locus, or “Place of the Skull.”

The abbot spread the earth from the Holy Land on the graveyard. News of his pious act spread, and soon everybody wanted to be buried here. “Everybody” became a lot of people, in part, due to the Hussite wars and the Black Death plague of the 15th century. There wasn’t enough room in the graveyard. A blind monk began placing the remains inside the church.

The Ossuary houses at least 40,000 human skeletons, Photo by Eric D. Goodman
The Ossuary houses at least 40,000 human skeletons, Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Garlands of skulls and bone decorate the arches and doorways. Bones are everywhere. We spend a heavy half hour or so touring the place, observing human remains as a medium for artistic expression.

“I could use a drink,” I say as we exit the Seldec Ossuary.

“I know where there’s a nice beer garden in town,” my friend replies.

Czech Beer 

There’s a local brewery in town called Dacicky, and they have a nice little restaurant to go with their beer. It’s popular with the locals as well as tourists, and the food and drinks are reasonably priced. We enter the place and come from the sunlight into a darkened hall of wood and metal and a roar of clashing conversations. People eat meat and drink beer. This has the look of a medieval beer pub or ale house.

Since the sun is low in the sky, the sky is clear, and the breeze is cool, we opt to go through the restaurant and dine in the beer garden out back. Normally, I’d probably prefer the classic look of the inside dining area, but we’ve had our share of dark insides today, between the silver mines and the Ossuary. A dark beer in the sunlight will be a nice balance.

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