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Saturday October 26, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Saturday October 26, 2013 MYT 8:37:26 AM
by paul fong
Bony secret: Lovely view of the township of Kutna Hora from the terrace along the road leading to the Cathedral of St Barbara. -- PAUL FONG
A church in Kutna Hora,
the Czech Republic, sends shivers down the spine
with its macabre decor.
FOR anyone who has a penchant for the spooky stuff or a ghoulish sense of humour, Halloween is just around the corner. For a short period of time, humans get to dress up and party as ghouls and the living dead with images of skeletons and skulls accepted in good humour and laughter.
But would it still be a laughing matter if you are faced with the grim reminders of death weekly – or even daily? Would anything be more macabre than visiting a place of worship to pray in a quiet chapel and be faced with skulls and bones at every turn?
Well, such a possibility exists in a small town east of Prague known as Kutna Hora, an hour’s ride away by train. In a small church surrounded by a cemetery, the spectre of skulls and femurs as an integral part of its interior fittings and decorations just like the statues of saints or the stained glass windows lining any ordinary church is an accepted norm by the local parishioners. How it came about is a rather interesting story.
Kutna Hora, in the Czech Republic, came into existence with the discovery of silver deposits in the 14th century in the area and the town grew around the mines. It became prosperous, but was afflicted by a disastrous plague in 1318 which claimed the lives of thousands of people.
Many of them were buried in a cemetery 2km outside of the main town centre. This particular cemetery was a popular place for burial because according to historical sources, a monk had come back from a visit to Jerusalem with a handful of soil taken from the hill at Golgotta (the location where Jesus was crucified on the cross), and had sprinkled it over the cemetery.
As a result, this cemetery became renowned for burial in medieval times. The present cemetery is estimated to contain the remains of more than 40,000 people, many of whom had died in the plague and also those who had perished in the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century.
A church dating from the 14th century that used to stand in the cemetery had been burned down by enemies of the town; it was rebuilt in the 19th century by an architect named Santini. The decoration of the Cemetery Church of All Saints was left to a talented local woodcarver named Frantisek Rint.
Seeing the abundant amount of bones available from the time when the size of the cemetery plot had been reduced, resulting in the bones being stored in the church’s crypt, he undertook the arduous task of recycling the bones to be used as decorations in the church.
Without any qualms whatsoever about handling human skulls and bones, the ingenious woodcarver laid out a plan to enhance the church interior and then proceeded to create with this vast resource at his disposal a full-scale chandelier, some big urns that could be used as flowerpots and pyramidal stands. He used his creative flair to great effect by decorating the arches and window-sills of the church as well.
All the arches and ribs on the ceiling were festooned with strings of human skulls and bones, just like buntings. His masterpiece was undoubtedly the chandelier, a true piece de resistance composed of every bone that is found in the human body.
Grateful to be entrusted with this taxing job, he fabricated with bones the coat of arms of his employer, the Schwarzenberg noble family who had bought over the monastery land. To ensure that he would be remembered in posterity as the decorator of the church interior, he even spelled out his name in full with the bones on one of the walls. Bizarre as it may seem, this ossuary and chapel are truly a lasting testimony of this man’s remarkable ingenuity and artisanal skills!
From the outside, the church building – more commonly known now as the Sedlec Ossuary – looks just like any ordinary church surrounded by a well-tended cemetery with small plaques commemorating the dearly departed, brightened up here and there with small potted plants and patches of flowers. Its chapel is still used by the Roman Catholic Church for their services.
One can only surmise that the congregation of this church is not the least bit perturbed by the overwhelming presence of skeletal remains within its interior and have grown accustomed to them over the years. Perhaps it serves as a poignant reminder of our mortality and that while we are still alive, we should always be God-fearing and lead a good, decent life?
For tourists on a day-trip to this picturesque town, the charming aspects of it do not just lie in this particular church, however unique it may be. With a history stretching back to the 14th century, there are quite a few historical buildings that are worth visiting.
Though the mines have long ceased their operations, it funded the construction of many old medieval buildings that have remained fairly intact right up to the present, all properly spruced up to add to its allure. This charming medieval town centre – with its numerous churches, monuments, civic town hall, townhouses and shops built in the Baroque style (and not forgetting that unique ossuary) – has merited a place in the Unesco World Heritage list.
One of the key attractions is the 15th century gothic Cathedral of St Barbara with its three unique tapering spires jutting up into the sky and easily towering over the rest of the town. The interior of this cathedral is spacious and vast, with high vaulted ceilings with the coat of arms of the local aristocrats embedded on the ceiling above.
The richly decorated altars, the tall stained-glass windows and chapels beg a respectful tour of the interior. While frescos of saints and biblical scenes are quite common in many old Catholic churches, the faded frescoes on one of the walls here depict the silversmiths at work; this gives an insight into the daily life of townsfolk during the medieval era.
A narrow gravel road connects the cathedral to the town centre and the terrace on one side of this short stretch of road offers a superb view of the surrounding countryside and the valley below.
Lining the terrace wall are 13 stone sculptures of saints stationed strategically along its length.
For those who have explored the capital Prague before making their way here, this terrace with its coterie of saints will immediately remind you of the famous Charles Bridge over the Vltava River with its rows of stone statues lining both sides of the bridge.
The centre of town is fairly compact and has many lovely baroque-era buildings painted in the most attractive colours. The few baroque churches in the town centre are worthy of a visit, rewarding visitors with its ornate interiors and heavily decorated altars.
In the town square, there is an elaborately carved monument commemorating the plague that occurred in 1318 which decimated the town’s population and took the lives of more than 30,000 of its inhabitants. Cafés and restaurants operate from rows of pastel-coloured townhouses with beautiful façades where you can take a breather and have a coffee or a delicious Czech lunch.
For those who like the unexpected, Kutna Hora will make an interesting detour if they are visiting Prague. Because it is not located in the immediate vicinity of the capital, you will not encounter busloads of tourists walking around town.
On the contrary, you will almost have the town to yourself and can explore it at leisure. You will not be jostling with the crowds to get inside the Sedlec Ossuary and you will be able to gaze undisturbed at the exhibits for as long as you like.
Perhaps, without anyone looking, you may feel audacious enough to reach out and pat a skull, or even insert your finger through an eye socket. So what if you feel a cold chill running down your spine while you are doing it? A holiday, just like Halloween, should be fun, right?
Tags / Keywords:
Czech Republic, Kutna Hora, church, cemetery, bones, Halloween, priest
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