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Friday, April 22, 2005

Recollections Ossuary at Sedlec, Czech Republic: Church of All Saints

At my request, my dear friend 42 and her daughter wrote up their experiences visiting the Ossuary at Sedlac. What follows below is their accounts and photos: We first arrived at the Ossuary just at closing time on Saturday. The weather was cloudy, temp 55 degrees. The Church was recognizable from a distance because of the skull and crossbones type of weathervane decorations. The Ossuary holds 40,000 sets of bones and the chapel is decorated with many of them. A large stucco wall surrounded the property. Immediately inside the gate and walls was a well-kept but very small, graveyard which surrounded 3 sides of the church (the 4th being blocked off to the public). The graveyard's layout reminded me of a raised vegetable garden with it's various sections blocked off. The graves and plots themselves were of various sizes and adorned with large markers, lit candles and fresh flowers - particularly daffodils. This treatment of graves is common in Eastern Europe. Large religious statues also dotted the graveyard. As I peered into the Ossuary from the large wood main door, I could see past the entry vestibule and down a flight of steps to a bone statue in the main chapel. The place was empty except for the ticket lady closing the doors to us and pointing to the sign saying they would open again at 8 the next morning. My impression at this point was, one of disappointment as my interest was definitely peaked by the quick glimpse inside. - the bones themselves seemed to be beckoning me in for further investigation. That night we stayed at the hotel located immediately next door. Several times that evening we walked past the chapel and its quietly guarding walls. Just outside the wall closest to the hotel , by a side entrance, was a large statue of a bishop who had captured and chained a devil. Sunday morning was a bleak, cold, rainy day. We arrived at the chapel a little before 9am...just as 5 tour buses were ready to descend on the Ossuary. The inside of the church martched the outside, despite the spotlights shining on various sculptures. My descriptions/impressions are during that quiet lull when there was only the 5 of us in the Ossuary, for as one brochure states: only when a man is silent things around start speaking The entry vestibule housed the very modest (by American standards) ticket/souvenir counter. The Church is divided into two floors, the Ossuary chapel is located down 15 steps in the lower, partially-subterranian level. From the start of the steps, one could see bones everywhere...on the walls...from the ceiling...bone displays in the middle of the room. All were tastefully and artfully arranged. The date and the artist of the latest round of artwork were done in bone on one wall. Four large pyramids of bones made up the four corners of the small chapel...A hole-like tunnel left in the middle allowed one to peer through and see how deep the pyramid was. A monstrance was housed in a niche in another wall. In the center of the chapel hung a large chandelier containing every bone in the human body (and numerous extraneous skulls, of course.) It is very dominant and a focal point to the room...more so than the altar immediately behind it. To the front left of the altar were the votive candles which one could light in memory of a deceased loved one. I lit one in memory of the souls whose bones were present before us. For the two non-religious in my group, this place felt a bit creepy. Mainly for the reason that these bones had been exhumed and not in their original resting place. For the rest of us, it wasn't creepy at all. With one exception: each skull in the Ossuary has a story to tell. By studying the heads' features and cranial sutures one could ascertain much about the individual. The only disturbing part for me, the only area where I felt any unease,was near a display of skulls that had holes in them. Unlike the vast majority at the Ossuary, these people did not die of a natural cause, but were soldiers who died an untimely, violent death, victims of the Hussite War. Overall, there was a solemnity about the Ossuary and a serenity that comes from peacefulness and calm. Even when the tourist hoards descended, there was a strange oneness between the alive and the dead, between the saints and the sinner. And who amongst us could tell which was which between the flesh and the bones? 42's daughter also wrote her impressions: The Kostnice Ossuary at Sedlec was surrounded by a tall, thick, tannish-grey stucco wall. Driving past was disappointing because the church itself was not visible from the road. Outside of the walls were intriguing statues - four religious figures standing in a square facing outwards. The one that struck me most was the figure facing the street, a bishop. Attached to the bishop's scepter by a length of iron chain was the Devil, gnawing at the collar he was forced to wear. I wondered who the bishop was, and why an artist would seek to represent him as having tamed evil. Inside the walls of the Ossuary were many, many graves, packed into a small space like sardines in a tin. What we had heard on the internet was true, everyone really did want to be buried here. What really struck me was the disorder of the cemetery - gravestones and monuments of all different shapes and sizes were squished together, sticking out at weird angles. Still, they were all in very good condition, and had flowers strewn about (or almost all, there was a grave in the shade in the corner, covered in ivy, that looked all but forgotten.) This was as far as we saw the first day, because we had arrived just at closing time. We stayed the night at a hotel all of 200 feet away, Hotel Uze Rosa' or something similar that translated to The Rose Hotel. I felt no discomfort sleeping so close to the Ossuary, but whether that was primarily from a lack of fear or an abundance of sleepiness I am unable to say. The next morning we went to the Ossuary directly after breakfast, payed the entrance fee of 30 krone (about one euro), and looked about. The day before, we had poked fun at the fact that the Ossuary was decorated by a half-blind monk, but the bones were truly artfully assembled. Every nook and every cranny had bones hiding in it somewhere, but it didn't feel crowded. The pair of chalices, the sunflowers, the chandelier and the pyramids and the coat of arms... all were skillfully made, and the effect was profound. The Ossuary was dark and somewhat hot from candles and spotlights showcasing the bones. It smelled of dust, but was not dusty. The only noises that could be heard from inside were our footsteps and camera flashes, and the sound of four or five tour groups filtering out of their buses to come and look at the building. Some of the people in our group thought that the Ossuary was creepy and didn't like being among reminders of decay and death. They were perturbed by the fact that the bones had been removed from their silent, peaceful graves to be made into this disconcerting artwork. However, I did not feel that the Ossuary was creepy, in fact, it was the most peaceful place I have ever seen. The artwork of bones that surrounded from all sides, though by far the dominating image of the church, were not the symbols of most importance, at least to me. Behind the altar was Christ on the cross. To me, Christ was the most profound image of the building. Around us in all directions was death and decay, a clear and present danger, but in the front was our salvation. I was beginning to see what the half-blind monk had in mind using bones as artwork: only after being fully aware of the magnitude of death can we really and truly appreciate the magnitude of salvation through Christ. I distinctly remember looking again at the bones, thinking: This is what Christ overcame for us!


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