Beyond Prague: Gargoyles and Bone Chandeliers

During our Christmas 2011 trip to Prague, we did venture out for one outside-of-Prague day-trip to the towns of Kutna Hora and Sedlec (both of which were named as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the 1990s, due to their churches and cathedrals). Not wanting to worry about renting a car, getting maps, driving or learning history on the fly, we hired a van, driver and guide to get us there and back and help explain all that we were seeing. Our guide was fantastic, and the poor girl never stopped talking for hours due to all our questions. The town of Kutna Hora was our first stop. It was established in the mid 12th century around the first Cistercian Monastery in Bohemia and within 100 years was known for its silver mines. The center of the town is a beautiful area, reminiscent of older days, with cockeyed houses and cobblestone streets, built up around the old Italian Court, which was originally the central mint for coin making, and is currently the town hall (with the most amazing art nouveau chapel). Across the valley from the Italian Court is St. Barbara’s Church, perched high on the hill, looking as large and foreboding from a distance as it does up-close. We walked through the town, past the Gothic St. James’s Church (which was under renovation), past the Jesuit College, and up to the imposing St. Barbara. Before entering, we walked around the entire church, just marveling at all those pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and endless flying buttresses. But my favorite architectural details were the gargoyles, all of which were different and individual. Some were animals, a frog, a ram, a bat, and several were humans, or at least human-ish. Some looked so horrifying I’d sooner believe they were vampires or relatives of the weeping angels from “Dr. Who” (if you haven’t experienced them, maybe you shouldn’t). The interior was equally enormous, but I found it less interesting than the exterior (not one leering gargoyle!). But you couldn’t ignore the vast scale and extreme height of the arches. Our next stop was in the neighboring town of Sedlec, to see its Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady as well as its famous ossuary. The cathedral was impressive in scale (but have you ever seen a tiny cathedral?), however I was mildly under-impressed. I think anything following the Gothic expanse of St. Barbara’s would probably pale in comparison (barring Notre Dam, of course), so Sedlec’s cathedral had a hard act to follow.

I will admit that one of our deciding factors in choosing a day-trip destination was when we saw pictures of the ossuary, or bone church, in Sedlec. It just screamed out, “You have to see this!” But in hindsight, I found it more disturbing than interesting. When you picture a “bone church” you can imagine some very strange things, but trust me when I say that you couldn’t possibly begin to imagine what they’ve done here. The external church looks like any normal village church, with a surrounding modern graveyard and wall. But entering (and paying the entrance fee) you are transported to something so disturbing that you feel like you’re on a set at Universal Studios. The original ossuary was built in the 1400s as a final resting place for the mass graves that were disturbed during one of the church’s many renovations. But it wasn’t until the 1870s that a man was hired to put the bones in order, which he did, in a sense. Immediately upon walking through the door, you are faced with stacks of skulls against the wall, each one alternating with a crossed ulna and radius (or something similar) reaching to the ceiling. Lines of skulls and ribs are draped garland-like all over the place, bones have been used to recreate the Schwarzenberg coat of arms and towering monstrances (vessels used to display the consecrated host), and the center of the room displays a chandelier that could really only look at home in the Munsters’ domicile. I stumbled around gaping at everything with everyone else, but I think I just found it difficult to wrap my head around the fact that each of those skulls represented a person with hopes and dreams and I’m not sure “being made into a chandelier” was one of them. All in all, our beyond-Prague day-trip was well worth it. I would highly recommend visiting Kutna Hora and, if you have the time and the inclination, you can swing by Sedlec, too. But, truth be told, I think I could have done without mental images of Hannibal Lecter's DIY projects.