Decorated with the Dead

It is a grim problem. A church has only so many burial spaces on its grounds. What is to be done if the demand for burial spaces exceeds capacity? Over the centuries, macabre solutions emerged, and a few of them appear in this week’s Halloween post.

Sedlec Ossuary

The Sedlec Ossuary is located in the Czech Republic. According to the Sedlec Ossuary website, it “is artistically decorated by more than 40,000 human skeletons.”

How did the Sedlec Ossuary end up being decorated this way? It is a tale that began way back in 1278. After an abbot of the Sedlec Cistercian Monastery returned from Jerusalem with a jar of earth from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Sedlec cemetery became a popular place to be buried. People wanted their remains to mingle with the “‘Holy Soil’” that the abbot spread over the cemetery. The cemetery filled up quickly, especially after the Black Death swept through Europe, and expansion of the cemetery became a necessity. A Gothic church was built near the cemetery in the 15th century, and the basement of the church served as an ossuary (a place to store the bones of dead people) for several centuries.

Over the years, two decorators were assigned to the task of arranging the bones in the Sedlec Ossuary. The Sedlec website notes that this task was initially given to a “half blind monk who arranged the bones.” Three hundred years later in 1870, a local woodcarver named Frantisek Rindt picked up where the monk left off and took bone arranging in a whole new artistic direction. His work is what people see today when they visit the Sedlec Ossuary, which is also called the Church of Bones or the Bone Church.

Sources:

“Sedlec Ossuary: The Church of Bones” – sedlecossuary.com

“Sedlec Ossuary History: Historical Facts” – sedlecossuary.com

 

Sedlec Ossuary Entrance.jpg

By Strider gts (talk)Tyler Nofziger via Wikimedia Commons
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

entrance to the Sedlec Ossuary
Sedlec Ossuary
This is the entrance to the Sedlec Ossuary.
April 19th, 2006

 

Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms.jpg

Photo by en:User:Polyparadigm, released into public domain. Wikimedia Commons

Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms in the Sedlec Ossuary
Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms, executed by František Rint in 1870 for the Sedlec Ossuary.
21:06, 29 October 2005

 

Skeletal Arrangements, Sedlec Ossuary (6282849715).jpg

By Antony Stanley from Gloucester, UK [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

lamp and wall decorations made of human bones at the Sedlec Ossuary
Skeletal Arrangements #1, Sedlec Ossuary
23 October 2011, 11:29
Source: Skeletal Arrangements #1, Sedlec Ossuary

 

Kostnice Sedlec.JPG

By Pudelek (Marcin Szala) (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

bone chandelier at Sedlec Ossuary, Kutná Hora
Sedlec Ossuary, Kutná Hora
December 2008

 

Bone Chandelabra.jpg

Photographer: Daniel Wabyick from San Francisco via Wikimedia Commons
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Bone Chandelabra in Kutna Hora Ossuary. Czech republic
Bone Chandelabra
Bone Chandelabra in Kutna Hora Ossuary. Czech republic
2004-09-30 12:52:06
Source: Flickr.com – image description page

 

Sedlec Ossuary – Interior 9.JPG

By Interfase (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Sedlec Ossuary - Interior
Sedlec Ossuary – Interior
This is a photo of a cultural monument of the Czech Republic,
number: 30874/2-1082
14 August 2014, 15:00:22

 

Sedlec Ossuary signature.jpg

Photo by en:User:Polyparadigm, released into public domain. Wikimedia Commons

Signature of the woodcarver who was charged with arranging the bones of the Sedlec Ossuary (František Rint from Česká Skalice).
Signature of the woodcarver who was charged with arranging the bones of the Sedlec Ossuary (František Rint from Česká Skalice).

 

Skull Chapel, Czermna

Located in southwestern Poland, Skull Chapel also has an interior decorated with human bones. Smithsonian reporter Perrin Doniger outlines some impressive statistics about how many bones cover its walls and ceiling and fill its crypt:

The skulls and leg bones of over 3,000 victims of wars and plagues cover the walls and ceiling, and a crypt below, accessible through a trapdoor, houses over 21,000 additional remains. Between 1776 and 1804, the local priest, Vaclav Tomasek, painstakingly gathered, cleaned and carefully arranged skeletons recovered from numerous, shallow mass graves left by the Thirty Years’ War, Silesian Wars and cholera outbreaks.

Source: “This Creepily Beautiful Chapel in Czermna, Poland, Is Constructed Out of Thousands of Human Bones” by Perrin Doniger – Smithsonian.com

Doniger further notes that Father Tomasek reserved the altar of Skull Chapel for “the bones of important figures and curiosities, including the skull of the local mayor, skulls with bullet holes, a skull deformed by syphilis and the bones of a supposed giant.” After he died in 1804, Father Tomasek’s skull “was placed on the altar as well.”

Although Skull Chapel is eerie, one can appreciate the amount of effort Father Tomasek put into decorating this church. He had only two assistants to help him with this task. According to Wikipedia, he worked with someone named J. Schmidt as well as a grave digger named J. Langer. In addition, Wikipedia notes that Father Tomasek’s artistic inspiration for Skull Chapel was “the Capuchin cemetery” (also known as the Capuchin Crypt), which we will visit next.

Sources:

“Skull Chapel, Czermna” – Wikipedia

“This Creepily Beautiful Chapel in Czermna, Poland, Is Constructed Out of Thousands of Human Bones” by Perrin Doniger – Smithsonian.com

 

Poland – Czermna – Chapel of Skulls – interior 02.jpg

By Merlin (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Interior of the Skulls Chapel in Czermna, Poland.
Interior of the Skulls Chapel in Czermna, Poland.
16 August 2009

 

Poland – Czermna – Chapel of Skulls – altar with skulls 03.jpg

By Merlin (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Poland - Czermna - Chapel of Skulls - altar with skulls
Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland. Kaplica Czaszek w Czermnej. Poland – Czermna – Chapel of Skulls – altar with skulls
16 August 2009

 

File:Poland – Czermna – Chapel of Skulls – interior 07.jpg

By Merlin (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

angel wall decoration surrounded by bones at the Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland
Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland. Kaplica Czaszek w Czermnej. interior
16 August 2009

 

Poland – Czermna – Chapel of Skulls – ceiling.jpg

By Merlin (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Poland - Czermna - Chapel of Skulls - ceiling
Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland. Kaplica Czaszek w Czermnej. Poland – Czermna – Chapel of Skulls – ceiling
16 August 2009

 

Poland – Czermna – Chapel of Skulls – cellar with skulls 01.jpg

By Merlin (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Poland - Czermna - Chapel of Skulls - cellar with skulls
Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland. Kaplica Czaszek w Czermnej. Poland -Czermna – Chapel of Skulls – cellar with skulls
16 August 2009

 

Capuchin Crypt

According to Wikipedia, the Capuchin Crypt is located underneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini in Rome, Italy. The Capuchin Crypt is the final resting place for the remains of approximately 3700 people. It is believed that these people were Capuchin friars, but no one knows for sure if all of them were friars. Having a smaller amount of human remains does not mean that the Capuchin Crypt is less eerie than the Sedlec Ossuary and Skull Chapel. In fact, the Capuchin Crypt makes up for its low body count with an orderly but creepy body management system. Wikipedia summarizes this system in its brief description of the construction of the crypt:

When the monks arrived at the church in 1631, moving from the old monastery, they brought 300 cartloads of deceased friars. Fr. Michael of Bergamo oversaw the arrangement of the bones in the burial crypt. The soil in the crypt was brought from Jerusalem, by order of Pope Urban VIII.

As monks died during the lifetime of the crypt, the longest-buried monk was exhumed to make room for the newly deceased who was buried without a coffin, and the newly reclaimed bones were added to the decorative motifs. Bodies typically spent 30 years decomposing in the soil, before being exhumed.

Source: “Capuchin Crypt” – Wikipedia

The bones, which are remains “believed to have been taken from the bodies of friars who had died between 1528 and 1870,” were then nailed, piled together, or hung in one of five rooms within the Capuchin Crypt:

  1. The Crypt of the Resurrection
  2. Crypt of the Skulls
  3. Crypt of the Pelvises
  4. Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones
  5. Crypt of the Three Skeletons

There is a sixth room in the Capuchin Crypt called The Mass Chapel, but this room is used to celebrate Mass and does not contain any bones.

Capuchinos 2.jpg

By Tessier via Wikimedia Commons
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

remains of a deceased friar and bone wall art at the Capuchin Crypt
cripta Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini

 

Capuchinos 3.jpg

By Tessier via Wikimedia Commons
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

remains of four robed friars, bone wall art, and crosses at the Capuchin Crypt
Cripta de Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, Roma

 

Cripta Cappuccini.jpg

By Tessier via Wikimedia Commons
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

the remains of three robed friars and bone wall art at the Capuchin Crypt
Cripta di Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini

 

Rom, Santa Maria Immacolata a Via Veneto, Krypta der Kapuziner 1.jpg

By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

two disembodied arms and bone wall art at the Capuchin Crypt
Cripta di Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini
12 April 2003, 16:36:17

 

Rom, Santa Maria Immacolata a Via Veneto, Krypta der Kapuziner 2.jpg

By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

two robed deceased friars, three skeletons, and bone wall art at the Capuchin Crypt
Cripta di Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini
12 April 2003, 16:36:56

 

Wikipedia notes that the “Catholic order insists that the display is not meant to be macabre, but a silent reminder of the swift passage of life on Earth and our own mortality.” I have not been to the Capuchin Crypt myself, but I can imagine how unsettling it would probably be to be surrounded by walls of human bones and mummified friars and then read the following placard in the Crypt of the Three Skeletons:

“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”

 

Source: “Capuchin Crypt” – Wikipedia

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