Images of war, pestilence, concentration camps, mass graves, rock logos, and comic books—all of the skulls I’ve ever seen, displayed in every medium from tattoo ink to 35mm film, surface in my mind and are forever affected by what I’m looking at now. Affected because all of these skeletons are, well, pretty. They’ve been cleaned, whitewashed, and organized into intricate patterns. All in all, there are the remains of more than 40,000 human beings in this room with me, and this church is not very large.
I’m cold. I can see my breath. Just moments ago, at the top of the entrance staircase, I was basking underneath the gentle glow of a cozy Czech spring day. After debating the edibility of an elephant-shaped, and somewhat blue, strawberry from a local market with some Australian college students, my friend and I walked to this remote town of Sedlec from the bus stop in Kutná Hora. Just a forty-minute bus ride from Prague, Kutná Hora once rivaled London in size and prosperity, and is now entirely unheard of.
An elderly British couple has moved next to me, staring at the human hand which has been transformed into a bird’s wing on one corner of the coat-of-arms. “How ghastly,” the woman remarks, with an indignant look. “How gruesome.” Her husband echoes with, “Grisly!” Are they doing this on purpose? Are they thinking of adjectives that start with “G” for their own amusement? Is that what old people do?
“How grim,” I reply to them, shaking my head with disapproval. “How… grotesque!” They ignore me and stroll away. I’m a little disappointed because I’ve just thought of “ghoulish.” That would have been a good one. Suddenly, remembering the outfit I wore today, I glance downward. My jacket has more than one skull patch stitched to the arms, and there is a big greenish, rotting zombie on my t-shirt. This is one of those wow-I’m-really-more-obnoxious-than-I-thought moments. Oops.
I approach one of the ladies near the door. “Jak se maté?” I say with a smile, “How are you?”
“Dobre,” she replies.
“Can I use a camera here?” I ask, expecting the inevitable frown for asking such a ridiculous question. I feel a little guilty for wanting to photograph these peoples’ sacred remains, but not guilty enough. I’ve never even heard of a place like this, and I need to have pictures to show friends back home. “Of course!” she replies. “Here is a brochure. It outlines the history of the church. Postcards are for sale, too. Thirty koruna.”
Happy day! How could I leave this weird little chapel without some proof that such a place existed? I traipse up and down every corner of the church, flashing away with my digital camera. The elderly couple, now openly disgusted with me, glares the entire time.
I read the brochure. It chronicles the tale of how most of the bodies were of plague victims who journeyed a long way across Europe to have the honor of being buried here. Apparently, this was the place to go when life was waning because it is holy ground. In 1278, a monk brought back some soil from Golgotha (the supposed hill where Jesus died, meaning “the place of the skulls”) in Jerusalem, and spread it over the church ground. People flocked to this site to be laid to rest, fed by the notion that being buried under holy ground guaranteed safe passage to heaven. Due to space restrictions, graves began to multiply vertically, in typical European fashion. By 1318, there were more than 30,000 bodies here. After a particularly bad bout of plague many centuries later, however, the clergy needed to make room for new guests, as the existing skeletons were filling the graveyard to the brim. After deliberation, they tasked a monk with exhuming some bodies to make room for the newly-deceased. Later, an aristocratic family commissioned a local artist to “decorate” the church, which explains the existence of the coat-of-arms.
And decorate it he did. Were one to dip their hands in the holy water, and look straight ahead, he or she would be confronted with a monstrous star-shaped crucifix, skull jutting from the center. The chandelier above is a fairy ring of pelvis-blossoms, with femurs hanging gently down in a row like dangling feathers. Candles illuminate the chandelier’s chains, which are a complex series of interlocking jaws and teeth. One corner of the coat-of-arms represents Bohemian victory over the Turks. A Turkish soldier is getting his eye socket pecked out by a bird. The soldier’s traditional Turkish plume headdress is symbolized by several ribs shooting through the top of his skull-cap head.
I begin to peer back at the elderly couple, scrutinizing the pale skin, the sharp bones protruding through the cheeks, and compare the vision with that of the skulls surrounding me. This is eerie; this entire scene I’m sure to forget once I step outside, but for now, I’m really here. I purchase some postcards from the lady behind the counter. I buy one of every type. These must be the best postcards I’ve ever seen. “Dear Aunt Heidi, you should come and see this place…” No, I can’t send one to her. She has cancer in remission; I doubt she would appreciate its artistic sensibilities. Not my uncle either. Would my dad think it was interesting?
How strange to work here, day after day! Does the lady who works here ever imagine she hears the quiet whispers of these thousands of people speaking to her of their joys and toils, hopes and frustrations? This skull, right here, next to me—how old was he? Or she? How did this person die? I’d like my bones to be on display for centuries to come, as a stunning and shocking combination of art and trophy. Where does one sign up? I could volunteer my skeleton to hold that jar of holy water, or perhaps some type of pipe organ could be made from my femurs. They could replace the stone alter with one made from my vertebrae.
My friend has headed outside; I guess she’d had enough. I take a few parting snapshots, clank my heels on the stone floor, and head upstairs into the crawling, warm, bright, life of the sun. As I no longer need my jacket, I fold it over one arm and smile toward my companion.
“Hungry?” she asks.
“Starving,” I say. “Starving to death!”
“Oh my God, you’re such a dork,”
“I know. Let’s get some beer and dumplings. Which way should we go?” We look around and see, upon the top of the church, a skeleton-chicken weathervane pointing toward the west.
“I’m following the dead chicken,” she says.
As she walks ahead of me, I remember another line from The Seventh Seal. A painter creating a morbid depiction in a chapel of dying plague victims is warned by a chatty squire that the people will close their eyes and refuse to look at his painting because it will scare them. The painter remarks, “Oh, they’ll look. A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.”
Timothy Weston is a software engineer, web developer, and artist who is currently creating a display of photographs taken in Prague, Kutná Hora, and other European cities on his website, www.timothyweston.com. He is also the founder of www.yaypagan.com. He lives in Oakland, California with his girlfriend and their three children.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.