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Kutna Hora’s Ossuary Gallery: Memento Mori

by Valeriya Salt

‘Whoever decorated this place had the weirdest, most bizarre imagination,’ my companion mumbles in shock when the two of us finally enter a tiny chapel.

What I see in the next second explains the enormous number of tourists swarming this small, Baroque town of Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic.

Bones... bones and skulls... They’re everywhere. On the wooden panels of the chapel’s walls, on specially designed triangular displays hanging down from the vaulted Gothic ceiling, arranged in fancy garlands and crosses, and finally... a massive — about a meter in diameter — chandelier of skulls stares at me from the ceiling with its hundreds of empty eye-sockets.

The air smells stuffy with lit candles and the numerous visitors crowding in a small nave. A pair of coffins, about two meters high, built of skulls and larger bones, grins at me with hundreds of toothless jaws. All the decoration of the Sedlec Ossuary, or Kostnice v Sedlci in Czech, is made of human bones.

‘It’s better than Halloween.’ My companion chuckles, shooting photos without a break.

I must agree. The Sedlec Ossuary looks like a set for some surrealistic, bizarre, David Lynch-esque type of a film, but the real story of this chapel is far more tragic.

Once a prosperous place, the second most important city in Bohemia after Prague, Kutna Hora was growing its power and influence on silver mining and even became the residence for a few Bohemian kings. In the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death consumed the city and then, in the 15th century, the Hussite Wars swept through the region, bringing even more death and destruction.

I sigh, observing the elaborate coat-of-arms on the wall made of bones. ‘Memento mori. Remember that you’ll die.’

My companion turns to me from his camera. ‘What did you say?’

‘It’s Latin,’ I continue. ‘Momento mori was a popular theme in Baroque art. Skulls, bones, droopy and faded flowers in a cracked vase, extinguished candles, stopped clocks — all these symbols prevailed in still-life painting in those days. And this’ — I make a wide gesture to the vaulted ceiling — ‘this chapel is the biggest example of momento mori.’

‘I wouldn’t like the idea of my body being exhumed and my bones put on show, even for the sake of art.’

My companion has got a point here. The ossuary contains the skeletons of between forty and seventy thousand people whose bones have been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel.

Baroque morality, its vision, its perception of life and death, its aesthetic were so different from ours in the 21st century. And yet this place has made me question my perception of life, death, and art. What are we able to sacrifice for it and to what point? Can we call it art at all? Or should we condemn the ossuary together with its creepy style? Maybe even destroy it and rebury the remains of those who died of the plague and sacrificed their lives in endless wars?

Whatever the answer is, this place is more than just a building, a chapel, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a work of art. It’s a reminder to all of us how horrific death can be, but how elaborate and unpredictable art can reintroduce it.

Copyright © 2021 by Valeriya Salt

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