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Sedlec Ossuary

by John Connolly for the The Independent, 2005

It is hard to walk among great numbers of human remains without feeling like a trespasser. The dead are their own nation, their own tribe, and whatever these pale creatures once had in common with the rest of us departed when they breathed their last. They leave behind bones and memories, and since, in our modern western culture, we are uncomfortable with the dead and their whispers of mortality, we make sure that those bones are placed where no one will have to look at them again. We bury them deep, or burn them to ash and cinders. They are the dead, and they are no part of us. In time, even the memories fade as those who knew them follow them from this world into the next, so that, in the end, only the ashes remain and only the bones persist. Occasionally, we may meet one of their number in a museum or a medical laboratory and even such brief encounters as these may arouse a range of responses in us: curiosity, fascination, pity, unease, perhaps even fear. 

But there are places where the dead remain above ground in greater numbers, gathered together in silent conclave, and to enter their presence is like walking in on a conversation that we have interrupted by our intrusion. For the dead are not, in the end, so different from us. We have their skulls beneath our skin, their bones in our backs, and they speak to us quietly, friend to friend, as we gaze upon them. They tell us that as they are now, so we too will be, one day. They remind us to value our time on this earth, and to keep our loved ones close to us while we can. In their wisdom, they know that all things will pass, the good and the bad, and we should cherish the former and endure the latter as best we can. 

And then the dead return to their own conversations, and leave us to consider what we have been told by them. 

There are such places in the world. 

Sedlec is such a place. 

* * * 

Writers are like magpies. They spot a shiny thing - an obscure incident in history, a story from a friend's past, the details of a long forgotten court case - and they store it away in the hope that it might provide inspiration some day. I have a whole file stuffed with shiny things (well, to be more accurate I have a whole file stuffed with yellowed news cuttings, near-illegible notes on napkins, and business cards from people who are probably long dead by now) and I will probably never use a fraction of them. What seemed interesting at the time has lost some of its allure, and now I can barely remember what I found unusual about most of those little nuggets to begin with. 

But Sedlec was not like that. From the first time that I visited the ossuary of All Saints Church on the outskirts of this little town in the Czech Republic, I knew that Sedlec was different, and the more I began to rummage around in its past, the more fascinating this little town in the Czech Republic became. Perhaps that's true of a lot of places. After all, every human life, if examined closely enough, will provide its share of extraordinary moments, so it's hardly surprising that an old town in what was once the wealthiest region in Bohemia should have its secrets. Yet even by these standards, there is something extraordinary about Sedlec. It is one of those places where, for a brief period in history, religion, politics, great wealth and great violence all intertwined. The few square miles upon which they came together are now marked by a pair of cathedrals, by a monastery filled entirely with tobacco executives, by glum suburbs and Communist-era apartments. 

And by a church furnished with human bones. 

* * * 

Initially, there is something unsettling about Sedlec. It's probably the collision that occurs in the mind between the structures themselves and the materials used to create them. After all, that is clearly a chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and those are candelabras beneath it, yet the items in question are made not from brass or crystal but from human remains. Take the candelabras: the candles stand on skulls, their lower mandibles missing and their upper jaws each gripping a horizontal bone. They are inset into a kind of pyramid of marble, one skull above the next in three vertical rows of six, the pyramid tapering almost to a point and topped by another skull. There are four pyramids in all, set in a square, and above them is that most extraordinary chandelier. 

The chandelier is reputed to contain an example of every bone in the human body, but even an expert in human anatomy would be hard-pressed to identify them all, so ornate is the detail of its construction. Once again, the candleholders are set into skulls, this time a circular arrangement of about ten, each skull at the end of one arm of the chandelier and each carefully balanced on what appear to be human pelvises, chains of bones connecting them to the central column of the chandelier. The entire arrangement hung from a stone ceiling garlanded with more skulls and bones. It is breathtaking yet profoundly disturbing, a work of art created from the dead as a message to the living. 

This, then, is Sedlec. It forms the basis of my new book, The Black Angel, but its contents, and its history, are so strange that my own fictions rather pale by comparison. In addition to the chandeliers and candelabras there are also ceremonial urns from bone, and monstrances with a skull where the Host, the bread transformed into the body of Christ, should be.There is even the immense coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family - who paid for much the ossuary's long restoration - assembled from the remains of the dead, rendered in such perfect detail that the artist recreated from bone a bird pecking out the eye of a Turk on the family's crest. Four great free standing pyramids of skull and bone, the earliest of the ossuary's monuments, dominate each corner. Over 40,000 bodies were used to decorate this place, a process that began in the 16th century and continued until the 19th, starting with the stacking of those pyramids by a half-blind monk and ending with a woodcarver named Frantisek Rint signing his name in bone upon the ossuary wall, the great chandelier that was his crowning glory already in place behind him as he did so. 

But how did all these bones come to be here? The simple answer is that a lot of people wanted to be buried in this now almost forgotten outpost of what was once the Holy Roman Empire. The Cistercian monastery at Sedlec was very wealthy and very well-known, due in no small part to the discovery of silver on some of its lands, and the presence nearby of the mining centre of Kutna Hora. Legend tells that Jindrich, an early abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Sedlec, brought back with him from the Holy Land a sack of soil which he scattered over the cemetery. The cemetery came to be regarded as a piece of the Holy Land itself, and people from all across Europe were brought for burial in its earth, alongside plague victims, fallen soldiers, and the local dead. The 14th century Zbraslav Chronicle records that, in one year alone, 30,000 people were interred at Sedlec. That's almost 600 people every week, and the cemetery itself isn't very big. Finding somewhere to put them all required a considerable degree of effort, energy and ingenuity. 

The crucial thing to understand about medieval cemeteries is that they were not like our own modern graveyards, which are neatly laid out with individual plots and memorials to those who lie beneath the ground. Most of the bones used to furnish Sedlec came from the great common graves of the poor that would have dominated the centre of the cemetery. These were little more than ditches, 30 feet deep and 15 or 20 feet across, into which the dead were cast sewn up in their shrouds, sometimes as many as fifteen hundred in a single pit covered by a thin layer of dirt, their remains easy prey for wolves and the grave robbers who supplied the anatomists. The soil was so putrefying that bodies quickly rotted, and it was said of some common graves, such as Les Innocents in Paris and Alyscamps in the Alps, that they could consume a body in as few as nine days, a quality regarded as miraculous. The stench from such cemeteries, it's safe to say, must have been absolutely vile. 

As one huge ditch filled, another older one was opened up and emptied of its bones, which were then stored wherever space could be found for them, whether within the main church building, against its sides, or in the arcades and porticoes along the cemetery walls. It mattered little to most people where their bones ended up just as long as they remained in the vicinity of the church, and it was common to see human remains lining the walls, or the porch, or even stored in small chapels specially designed for the purpose, which is how the ossuary at Sedlec came into being. 

By the early 16th century Sedlec's bones had become so numerous that something had to be done about them, and in 1511 the task of disposing of them was entrusted to one of the monks, so beginning the great work that would become the ossuary at Sedlec. In the 18th century, an architect named Jan Santini Aichl was entrusted with its reconstruction, and then the woodcarver Rint was brought in late in the 19th century and apparently allowed to let his imagination run free and wild. 

It is to Rint that we owe the existence of the most fabulous of Sedlec's constructions: the chandelier, the coat-of-arms, the stunning urns and monstrances. I find him fascinating, possibly because so little appears to be known about him. He was simply a local craftsman, familiar to those in whose care the ossuary lay, but from the remains of tens of thousands of anonymous decedents, Rint completed a monument to the transience of human affairs, carefully disassembling two of the original six bone pyramids in order to provide raw material for his constructions, and reburying what was not used beneath an iron cross in the cemetery. He disinfected the remains, bleached them with chlorinated lime, and went to work, assisted only by two members of his family. When he was finished, he signed his name in bone upon the wall, along with the name of his town, Ceska Skalice, and the year of completion, 1870, before apparently disappearing from history. 

So the ossuary at Sedlec is not, perhaps, untypical, but it is unusual in the artistry of its creations, and much of that is due to Rint. The monastery that it once served now no longer exists as a Cistercian community. It was partially destroyed in 1421 during fighting between the followers of the executed reformer Jan Hus and the forces of the Holy Roman Empire, and all of the monks within its walls were slaughtered. Even here, history throws up some curious individuals to add to the colour of Sedlec's past: the repellent "antipope" John XXII who, in addition to being accused of simony, sodomy, theft and incest, was said to have seduced and violated some 300 nuns, and was rumored to have poisoned his predecessor, Pope Alexander V, in order to attain the papacy; and John Ziska, leader of the opposing Hussite forces, who was already blind in one eye at the start of the campaign, and was almost immediately blinded in the other. Nevertheless, he continued to lead his forces to victory until he died of plague in 1424 whereupon, as per his instructions, his skin was made into a drum and beaten by his army as they went into battle. 

The monks later returned and began rebuilding, but nearly six hundred years later the monastery's cathedral has still not been fully restored, and the monastery itself now houses the offices of the Philip Morris tobacco company, its executives occupying what were once the monks' cells. The ossuary, though, still stands at the centre of the little cemetery just a short distance from the monastery, and a steady trickle of visitors come to gaze upon its contents throughout the year. 

There is, in a strange way, something deeply moving about these furnishings of bone. The names of most of those whose bodies were used to create them are long lost to history. They probably weren't even very important to begin with, and presumably had no great expectation that either their remains or their memories would be honoured after their deaths. But through the efforts of a monk, an architect, and a gifted woodcarver, each developing the work of his predecessor over a period of three centuries, they have been transformed, and a kind of immortality has been achieved for them. They have become folk art, and something more; for the chandelier, the candelabras and the monstrances have all been assembled so lovingly, and with such care and imagination, that they function as more than merely a reminder of our mortality, or as a macabre display to amuse tourists. In its recognition of the beauty of this flawed, temporary body that we inhabit, and its realisation that part of this beauty lies in its very transience, Sedlec is a silent hymn both to God and to the human form He created. We may be interlopers in this place, passing visitors on the way to more urgent callings, but its occupants will always be here, waiting. 

And, in time, they will welcome us into their company.

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