Commentary Travel

The Czech “Church of Bones”

CNN Travel correspondent Nathan Kay takes readers on a tour of Kutná Hora’s famous Church of Bones.

In the heart of the Czech countryside, Kutná Hora houses some of the most beautiful architecture in the whole of Bohemia. One of the most popular tourist destinations is Sedlec Ossuary, the “Church of Bones”, adorned with around 40,000 human skeletons.

Positioned around 70 kilometers (about 43 miles) east of Prague, the medieval city of Kutná Hora competed politically, economically and culturally with the capital city during the 13th to 16th centuries, thanks in part to the silver mine boom that enriched the area at the time.

Today, however, Kutná Hora displays a more sedate, yet impressive vision of Czech culture and tradition -- hence its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. But amid its Baroque-style buildings and medieval churches, lies an attraction that's definitely not for the faint-hearted traveler.

While the Church of All Saints seems rather unassuming from the outside, lurking underneath is an enthralling tale of mystery and death. Down a small staircase, in the lower chamber of this Roman Catholic church, lies the Sedlec Ossuary, which is adorned with around 40,000 human skeletons.

Dubbed the Church of Bones, the story behind this grisly attraction begins in 1278, when the King of Bohemia sent the abbot of the Sedlec Cistercian Monastery to Jerusalem. He's said to have come back with a jar of soil from the Golgotha, the site where the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is said to have occurred, and spread it around the local cemetery. When news of the "Holy Soil" became public, people from all over the region started requesting to be buried there.

The bones that currently reside in Sedlec Ossuary were exhumed from this site in the 15th century to make room for the town's expansion, as well as new burials. They apparently lay stacked in the basement of this Gothic church until 1870, when a woodcarver named Frantisek Rint was appointed to excavate and organize them. The result is spectacularly shocking.

This underground chapel contains a chandelier made entirely of bones, as well as garlands of human skulls. To the left of the chandelier, sits a coat of arms formed of the bones of the Schwarzenbergs, an aristocratic Czech family who once ruled over the city. Meanwhile, a collection of human skulls piled on top of each other stands to the right. Each is accompanied by religious displays arranged out of bone, reminding visitors that the chapel remains a respectful place of worship, despite its rather macabre contents.

"There are still regular masses held in the upper chapel as well as in the lower chapel," Radka Krejčí, Corporate Department Manager for the Sedlec Ossuary, tells CNN Travel. "There are also concerts held inside the church."

The site welcomed around 450,000 tourists in 2018, with an estimated 500,000 expected to visit this year. But its popularity has become an issue for residents.

"We need to understand that it's still a Roman Catholic church surrounded by a functional cemetery. Not every visitor respects that."

While Sedlec Ossuary is no doubt one of the stand out attractions in Kutná Hora, there are plenty of other impressive sights in this delightful Czech city, such as the St. Barbara's Cathedral, GASK (the Gallery of the Central Bohemian Region) and the Gutenberg Printing House Museum.

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