After grappling with Czech phrases in our guide book, my sister and I managed to get ourselves a pair of train tickets to Sedlec, thanks to a very patient lady at the hlavni nadrazi train station in Prague. There were two changes, the last being a rather pointless two minute ride that dropped us off outside the tobacco factory, formerly a Cistercian monastery.
We left the platform and headed up the deserted street. It was eerily quiet. Was this the place? We walked for a short while until, with relief, we saw a sign for the Kostnice. We were on the right track. There was the church up ahead, smaller than we had imagined and surrounded by a bleak but beautiful graveyard. The stillness of the graveyard set the tone for what was to come.
Upon entering the chapel and walking slowly down the staircase, through the archway and into the crypt, a mesmerizing scene awaited us.
A startling chandelier, dripping with bones is the main focal point. It is grotesque yet aesthetically pleasing in its precise arrangement. Streaming away from it across the vaulted ceiling is more osseous matter. Decorations of the deathly remains cascade down the walls and up the stairs. Innocent cherub faces and empty skulls loom over us as we wander through the chapel. Death is everywhere.
The bone arrangements as they are today is the dark accomplishment of František Rint, who was given the job (in 1870) of creating something spectacular out of the remains of 40,000 + people, many of whom were plague victims from the 16th Century. It was considered a desirable place to be buried for devout Roman Catholics, hence the number of bodies.
The macabre essence of the Sedlec ossuary is captured perfectly by Jan Švankmajer in his disconcerting short film of the Ossuary, from 1970. The grim rattling of the bike as its unseen rider peddles towards the chapel foreshadows the skeletal adornments that lie below ground in the chapel.