Written by: Katy Meyers Emery
Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie
Every few months, the photos of the famous bone decorated churches make their rounds through the internet through more popular websites. There seems to be a continuing macabre fascination with these locations. Comments from these sites reveal a mix of fascination, horror and disgust with the various buildings. However, they aren’t all the same- they have their unique reasons for what they did, why they did it, and who is included in the decorations. By examining the context of their creation, we can better understand how this artwork came to be and truly appreciate its magnificence.
This will be a two part piece, today we’ll be discussing some of the more famous locations, and Thursday we will be talking more some lesser known examples and about why this type of artwork is so important.
1. The Paris Catacombs: This is the quintessential and arguably most famous of the bone decorated locations. The Left Bank grounds around Paris had been used as a cemetery long before the 4th century CE when it was a Roman Imperial settlement. Following the fall of the empire, the people both living and dead moved to the right bank. The principal cemetery, “Saints Innocents”, began in the right bank prior to the 12th century, and was used until the end of the 19th century. Due to this long period of use, there was overcrowding, removal and replacement of bones in a stacked fashion in galleries, and a two-meter high earthen mound of burials. Through this period, the left bank began to have underground mines to make use of the rich limestone deposits. Many of these mines were uncharted, haphazard and illicit, so when mining stopped in the 18th century due to suburban buildup of the land, the extent of the mines was unknown.
In 1777, collapsing mines were causing problems within the city, and it was determined that they needed to be mapped and reinforced. At the same time, there were problems with the breakdown of bone repositories in “Saints Innocents” and the cemetery was officially closed to the public due to the hazards to safety. In 1785, it was determined that the best course of action was to move the bones from the cemetery into the abandoned mines to create an underground sepulchre. It would take two years, and thousands of nightly trips back and forth to move all the bones from the overcrowded cemeteries into the mines. At first, the sepulchre was a storage place for piles of bones. It wasn’t until 1810 that Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury decided to renovate the underground caverns to create the artwork we see today. He led a team in sorting and stacking bones, used old cemetery decorations to enhance the feel, and carved inscriptions into walls and lintels to warn, describe, and comfort potential visitors. The catacombs opened to the public in 1814, and other than some years of prohibition by the church and limitations on visits, it has been open since. Visitors can walk through the catacombs and admire the fantastic decorations such as a heart made of bones, or stacks of skulls. You can visit today for between 4-8 Euros depending on your age and status.
2. The Sedlec Ossuary: A close second in fame and notoriety is the Sedlec Ossuary, a small Roman Catholic chapel located beneath the floor of the Cemetery Church of All Saints in the Czech Republic. The church was opened in the late 13th century, and became a desirable place for burial due to soil from the Holy Land being sprinkled upon its grounds. Due to the Black Death in the mid-14th century and the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century, the cemetery had to be greatly enlarged. Around 1400, a Gothic church was built in the cemetery, and a lower chapel was constructed to serve as an ossuary for the thousands of bones unearthed from a mass grave during construction. In 1511, a monk was given the task of exhuming these remains and placing them in the lower chapel. In 1870, František Rint, a woodcarver, was given the task of putting the bones in the chapel into a more orderly fashion. Instead of simply stacking or sorting, Rint decided to use the bones to create the amazing decorations we see today.
Using the remains of over 40,000 individuals, Rint created bone chandeliers, used skulls to decorate the arches of the ceiling, and creatively stacked bones around all the churches original features to create fantastic decorative features. Most impressive are the use of bones to create the Schwarzenberg coat of arms, the family who employed Rint in redoing the chapel, and the raven made out of bone. The Sedlec Ossuary is the most visited site in the Czech Republic, and you can visit for the minimal fee of 50 Czech Koronas (about $2.20 or 1.75 euros). It is a little difficult to get to, but luckily there are tourism sites dedicated to getting you there.
3. Hallstatt Beinhaus: In Halstatt, Austria, there is a small chapel behind St. Michael’s chapel which houses thousands of skulls. The church was constructed in the 12th century CE, and was a popular spot for burial due to its location- built up high upon a steep rock face with views of the city and landscape below. However, because of its placement on this idyllic spot there is a limited space for burial. As the cemetery began filling up in the 16th and 17th centuries, it became a tradition for older skeletons to be removed and placed into the charnel house. Burials that were 10-15 years old would be exhumed, and the skeletons laid out in the sun to be bleached. Family members would take part in the process, and would take the bleached bones inside the bone house chapel to be stacked next to their nearest kin.
In 1720, they began to paint the skulls of the exhumed deceased with symbolic decorations, as well as date of birth and death. The skulls were then displayed in the chapel so that the deceased could be visited and remembered despite the lack of a grave marker. Of the 1200 skulls in the chapel, 610 of them are painted with symbols such as roses, laurels and most bear a Maltese Cross. Older skulls have darker, heavier paintings of garlands, and the newer ones are often brighter and more delicate flowers. The last skull to be placed in the bone house was a woman who died in 1938. Her last request was to be placed in the Halstatt Beinhaus, and her wish was granted in 1995. What makes this collection even more fascinating, is that most of the skulls from the 17th century onwards are accompanied by complete records of births, deaths and marriages kept by the Catholic Church. Today you can visit the bone house for 1.50 euros.
What is so fascinating is that though they are similar in their final state, sacred places decorated with bones, the reasons why, methods for doing it, and manner are very different.
Information from a variety of websites including the museum sites and Wikipedia links.