Last year on Easter we camped at an abandoned castle in Spain, a memory that’s still pretty hard to top.  This year we wanted to go somewhere much closer for the holiday, but couldn’t decide where.  We wanted it to fit nicely into a 4-day weekend without having to spend all of our vacation traveling to and from.  Göttingen is pretty much smack dab in the middle of Germany and so central in Europe that in just a few hours, we can be in Italy, Austria, France, Benelux, Switzerland, or the Czech Republic. That’s just too many options for Two Small indecisive Procrastinators!  As of Wednesday, the weather forecast predicted gloom and doom for just about everywhere within a 6-hour radius.  Everywhere, that is, except Prague!  When I found out Prague Castle would also be hosting Easter festivities for the first time and that the famous Sedlec Ossuary (Bone Church) is less than an hour from Prague, we hit the road Friday morning for the Czech Republic.

Our only stop along the drive was to pick up a road vignette for the CR just across the German border.  Living in Europe apparently can turn even a hardcore fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants’er into a planner since I actually read about the vignette in advance.  I hate to admit it, but it paid off.  Not only was it easy, but someone at the vignette booth actually asked us what to do with it.  And we knew the answer.  Easter miracles do happen.

Prague is so close to the German border that we arrived in just over an hour.  The only year-round campground we’d found, Triocamp, is conveniently located in the northern outskirts of the city, so it was our first stop.  We threw our tent down in a grassy field, our home for the next 3 nights, and cursed the meteorologists for the frigid rain that had followed us from Germany.  Too early to go to sleep but too late to hope any sites would still be open, we instead burrowed in our down sleeping bags for warmth.  Piling on layers, we slept in full winter gear.  Prague, clearly, had not received the memo that it was supposed to be spring.

The next morning we were up bright and early for a half-day side trip to the nearby town of Kutná Hora.  There, in the tiny suburb of Sedlec, we found the stunning Kostnice Sedlec Ossuary, more commonly referred to as “The Church of Bones.”

Planning a trip to Prague? Don't miss the fascinating and macabre Sedlec Ossuary in the town of Kutna Hora. It's an easy day trip from the city. Click To Tweet
Skull and crossbones on top of Sedlec Ossuary church

This might be the only church in the world that’s topped with a skull and crossbones instead of a cross.

History

The first Cistercian monastery in Bohemia was founded in 1142, which later gave rise to the town of Kutná Hora.  The ground where the “Church of Bones” now stands began as a cemetery overseen by the Cistercians as part of the monastic complex.  Throughout the 14th century, over 30,000 victims died during epidemics.  Their bones were laid to rest in the cemetery, which quickly reached capacity.

Tombstone in the Sedlec Ossuary cemetery

The current church still maintains a small cemetery surrounding the building.

Near the end of the 14th century, a Cistercian abbot ordered the construction of a Gothic church, The Cemetery Church of All Saints, on the grounds of the existing cemetery.  During the church’s construction, tens of thousands of bones were carefully removed from their original burial sites.   The abbot required that there be sufficient space for these bones to be newly laid to rest on the lower floor of The Cemetery Church.  This charnel house, or burial vault for human skeletal remains, is now known as the Sedlec Ossuary.

Sedlec Ossuary church, Kutna Hora

The Cemetery Church of All Saints rises above the Sedlec Ossuary, a charnel house, or burial vault for human skeletal remains below ground.

Thousands more were buried in the vault in 1421 when Hussite troops conquered the city of Kutná Hora, burnt the monastery, and damaged the church and cemetery.

Exterior walls of Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora

The arched entrance to the church grounds and cemetery hints at the ossuary’s macabre interior.

Upper atrium of Sedlec Ossuary

Just inside the entrance to the ossuary, bone garlands hang from the arch.

Legend

According to a popular legend, the King of Bohemia sent the abbot of the monastery to the Holy Land in 1278.  When the abbot returned, he brought with him a handful of dirt from Golgotha, the ancient site where Jesus was crucified.  When word of this pious act spread, the cemetery became a coveted burial site.

Skulls of Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic

Another legend holds that in the 15th century, a partially blind monk piled bones in the four main bell-shaped mounds that remain in the four corners of the ossuary today.  Once his work was completed, he miraculously regained his eyesight.

Bell shaped mound of skulls at Sedlec Ossuary

Bones As Art

Though it’s unknown who started arranging the bones as a form of art, some semblance of decoration had already taken shape in the 1500s.

Decorative skull art at Sedlec Ossuary

During the Baroque reconstruction in the 1700s, bone-shaped chalices and skull garlands were added.

Arched entryway of Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic

Skeleton garland adorning the ceiling of Sedlec Ossuary

Additional decorations were added in 1820 by Frantisek Rint.  Of his creations, two are especially notable.  The first is the coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family, who bought the abbey property in the 1800s.  One of the more famous sculptures, that of the raven skeleton pecking a hapless human skull, adorns this coat of arms.

Schwarzenberg family emblem of skulls at Sedlec Ossuary

The second is the massive chandelier in the center of the vault that is said to include at least one of every bone in the human body.

Bone chandelier of Sedlec Ossuary

Franktisek Rint's signature in bones, Sedlec Ossuary

Rint signed his “work” in bones on the wall of the vault.

Restoration

Renovations to the church during the Baroque period increased the overall weight of the building beyond its original capacity.  The lower portion of the building extends 3 meters down into the soft ground where the walls are constantly wet.  Because it’s built on soft, wet ground, the church is slowly sinking under its own weight at a slight tilt, which continues to create fissures and cracks in the floor and walls.  For the past year, a team working with the Sedlec Parish has been monitoring the movement of the building and is working with a team of specialists to stabilize it.  The team has ambitious plans to restore the entire structure with renovations currently underway.

Church of Sedlec Ossuary

The Cemetery Church at Sedlec Ossuary

Deceptively plain, the interior of The Cemetery Church upstairs is slated for numerous renovations, including significant work to restore the massive windows that were bricked over.

Sedlec Ossuary is one of twelve UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Czech Republic.  It certainly deserves this status.  For us, it was without a doubt the highlight of our trip to the Czech Republic.

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Know Before You Go
  • Kostnice Ossuary official website (available in English)
  • Opening hours and fees, open every day except December 24th
  • The site intends to remain open through the renovations, though some areas may be blocked off.
  • Photography is allowed without flash or tri-pods.
  • If you arrive before 10 am, you’ll likely beat the tour groups and have the place mostly to yourself!
Prague Road Trip Map

Visiting Sedlec Ossuary, the Bone Church | Czech Republic

22 Responses

  1. Natasha Welch

    I especially love the first part of this, the narrative is so easy to follow and really feel like I know you guys! The history was interesting too. What beautiful and gothic architecture there is, thanks for sharing didn’t know about this place beforehand

    Reply
    • Two Small Potatoes

      Thanks so much, Natasha! We love finding cool and unusual places to visit, even if they’re not completely “off the beaten track.” And thanks for stopping by. I’m headed over to your site now to see what you’ve been up to. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Urvi

    Wow it looks amazing and scary for me. I don’t know why but I feel scare when I visit any haunted or abandoned place. But it looks nice place I hope I can gather courage to visit there.

    Reply
    • Two Small Potatoes

      We really liked it, Urvi, but if it’s not your thing, that’s totally cool! The world is full of cool places to visit. No need to waste your time on something that scares the bejesus out of ya! 😉

      Reply
  3. Joanna

    I loved Prague, I have been there for 2 days a few years ago but I don’t remember visiting this church. It looks different than other churches I have seen before. It is macabre but fascinating in the same time. It would give me chills visiting it, knowing those are real bones.

    Reply
    • Two Small Potatoes

      We enjoyed Prague too, Joanna, but we’re not big city people, so it was nice to spend a half day exploring the Bone Church. It’s in a small town about an hour outside the city. Doesn’t it make you wonder what someone was thinking when they decided to start making art out of the bones?!

      Reply
  4. Christina

    Prague is so on my bucket list! I have always wanted to visit the Sedlec Ossuary ever since I first saw pictures of it. I never realized it was a UNESCO site.

    Reply
    • Two Small Potatoes

      I’m curious to hear what you think after you visit, Christina. It’s not terribly big, but the displays have so many details, it gives you plenty to see. Enjoy your visit!

      Reply
  5. Nina

    Interesting church, a bit too uncomfortable for me. All those skulls remind me on my visit of Memorial genocide center in Kigali in Rwanda.

    Reply
  6. Jessica

    First off I love that you guys are living in Germany and using it as a jumping off point for traveling Europe. That’s what I plan to do this upcoming Fall from Italy and I’m so stoked!! Second, very interesting post, was the Bone Church always on your bucket list? Or how did you choose it??

    Reply
    • Two Small Potatoes

      Thanks Jessica! Germany sort of fell in our laps, but it’s definitely a great central place for traveling throughout Europe. That’s so exciting you’re moving to Italy! Where are you moving from? We haven’t done much in Italy still and have so many sites there still on our bucket list. I’m sure you’ll love it! Good question about the Bone Church. It actually wasn’t always on our list. I follow a site called Atlas Obscura and the church popped up as one of the world’s most peculiar tourist attractions. It’s a fun site – lots of fun and wacky travel ideas! Good luck with your move to Italy!

      Reply
  7. Erica

    Added this to my bucket list with no hesitation whatsoever. The coat of arms may be one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen. Really informative post, and a great tip for something to do outside the usual Prague sites!

    Reply
    • Two Small Potatoes

      Right on! Is it just me or does the coat of arms smack of Edgar Allan Poe? While we were there, I kept thinking how much he’d probably appreciate it. Thanks for reading, Erica!

      Reply
  8. Lyssie

    What unique artwork in this church! Did you find it at all creepy with all those bones? Such an interesting history…great getaway!

    Reply
    • Two Small Potatoes

      The artwork is definitely interesting Lyssie, but it’s somehow less creepy as “art” than if it were just huge piles of bones, ya know? I wouldn’t want to be locked in overnight though!

      Reply
  9. blondemoments

    i never heard about that place before. i am planing a trip to prague anyways so i guess i ll just stop there as well. thanks for the tip!

    Reply
  10. Chris Carney

    had to Google it when Trav told me about this Surely a most macabre sight. Glad you enjoyed yourselves and made a safe trip. thanks for the wonderful pictures…..bout as close as I would want to come to that place. haha

    Reply
    • Two Small Potatoes

      Macabre is right, but such a fascinating work of art! I can’t imagine we’ll ever see anything quite like it. During the renovations, they’re going to remove every single bone for cleaning and treatment in an effort to better preserve them. The reverence the locals have for the site is impressive.

      Reply

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