7 Amazing Facts About the Sedlec Ossuary

Decorations in the Sedlec Ossuary, a small chapel beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic
Decorations in the Sedlec Ossuary, a small chapel beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

About an hour's drive east of Prague, the Czech Republic's Sedlec Ossuary—known as Kostnice Sedlec in Czech, and nicknamed the Bone Church—has become a macabre pilgrimage site for roughly 400,000 tourists a year. The centuries-old Roman Catholic chapel boasts a series of stunning decorations, all made from skeletons. Read on for seven facts about the past, present, and future of this remarkable (and remarkably dark) attraction.

1. The Sedlec Ossuary is home to the remains of more than 40,000 people.

The Bone Church started out as part of a Cistercian monastery founded in 1142 [PDF]. According to legend, around 1278, a local abbot made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, after which he brought back a handful of soil from Golgotha—the site of Jesus's crucifixion. Upon his return, the abbot scattered the soil over the monastery's cemetery as an act of consecration. Soon enough, Sedlec's cemetery became a highly desirable place to be buried, and the Black Death epidemics of the 14th century only added to the number of burials. The Hussite Wars (1419-1434) added another approximately 10,000 bodies. Before long, the cemetery groaned under the weight of all its occupants, and an ossuary—a receptacle for bones—was constructed to hold the "excess" bodies in the basement of the cemetery chapel. The decorations in the Bone Church were constructed from these extra bones, primarily in the 19th century.

2. According to legend, a half-blind monk first arranged the bones at the Sedlec Ossuary into pyramids.

If you visit the underground chapel today, you'll notice pyramids of bones in each corner. Now there are four, but once there were six—all allegedly arranged by a half-blind monk in the early 16th century. Supposedly, once he had finished arranging the skulls, femurs, etc. to his liking, he regained his sight.

3. The Sedlec Ossuary is home to a chandelier made with (almost) every bone in the human body.

A Baroque period bone chandelier in the Sedlec OssuaryMICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps the most famous feature of the Bone Church is the 8-foot chandelier said to contain almost every bone a human being can grow. The chandelier is the work of František Rint, a Czech woodcarver hired around 1870 by the Schwarzenbergs, a powerful noble family that had purchased the property in the late 1700s. Rint—who may have trained in Italy and been inspired by the skeletal decorations in some crypts there—disinfected the bones and bleached them with chlorinated lime to give them a uniform appearance. Macabre as it may seem, the chandelier is not intended as a ghoulish decoration: It's a memento mori, a reminder of death, intended to encourage believers to consider their earthly fate and relationship with God.

4. The Sedlec Ossuary is also home to a family crest made out of bones.

Visitors look at the coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg noble family at the Sedlec Ossuary chapelMICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

The Schwarzenbergs weren't above a little family pride. Rint also fashioned a Schwarzenberg coat of arms out of bones, which is fastened to the railing over one of the pyramids. The bottom right features a raven plucking the eye out of the head of a Turk (all constructed from bones, of course). According to author Paul Koudounaris's book Empire of Death, this feature commemorates the victory of Adolf Schwarzenberg over Ottoman forces in 1598.

5. The Sedlec Ossuary's chapel includes the artist's signature—in bone.

Rint's signature at the Sedlec OssuaryWilson44691, Wikimedia // Public Domain

There's no doubt about who created most of the chapel's morbid decorations—which also include oversized monstrances, chalices, sunbursts, and garlands—because Rint signed his handiwork. If you visit the ossuary, you can see the signature (made from hand and arm bones) near a staircase down from the main level.

6. The Bone Church has starred in its own short film.

In 1970, the centenary of Rint's undertakings, the Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer came out with Kostnice (The Ossuary), a 10-minute, black-and-white short film celebrating the site. The original narration, which included explanations from a tour guide, was deemed unacceptable by Communist authorities (all the death and decay reportedly seemed a little too subversive). Instead, the audio track was replaced with piano music and the recitation of the poem "To Paint the Portrait of a Bird" by Jacques Prevert.

7. The Sedlec Ossuary is under renovation.

Over the years, the dampness of the underground site—not to mention the stampede of visitors—has taken its toll. The Sedlec Ossuary has been under renovation since 2014, and the entire church is in the process of being strengthened and restored. The famed bone chandelier was dismantled, cleaned, and put back together in 2016. As of February 2019, volunteers were at work dismantling and cleaning the pyramids of bones.

While the renovation is ongoing, the site is generally open during repairs.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

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The Trailblazing Story of Alexandrine Tinné, the Victorian Explorer Who Attempted to Cross the Sahara Desert

Alexandrine Tinné was an avid explorer.
Alexandrine Tinné was an avid explorer.
Haags Historisch Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A well-chaperoned Grand Tour of Europe offered wealthy Victorian women a way to safely admire civilization’s wonders, but such travel held little interest for Dutch heiress Alexine Tinné. Having studied books on geography, archaeology, and botany at the Royal Library in the Hague, Tinné longed to explore uncharted regions. Her travels would bring her along the White Nile and later, deep within the Sahara Desert.

An Escape From Victorian Life

Alexandrine Tinné, circa 1855–1860.Robert Jefferson Bingham, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the mid-19th century, exploration was considered a gentleman’s pursuit. The Royal Geographic Society had never financed an expedition led by a woman (and wouldn't until 1904). But Tinné didn't need anyone to authorize or fund her trip, having inherited a fortune when she was 9 years old after the death of her father, Philip Frederik Tinné, a wealthy Anglo-Dutch sugar merchant and shipbuilder [PDF]. She could afford to travel in luxury with her mother, Baroness Henriette van Capellen, a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Sophie of Württemberg. When Tinné was 19, she and her mother traveled Europe and Scandinavia before heading to Egypt to enjoy pleasure cruises on the Nile.

According to Mylinka Kilgore Cardona, a history professor at Texas A&M University who is reworking her dissertation The Six Lives Of Alexine Tinné [PDF] into a book, Tinné’s travels offered a chance to escape the narrow confines of Victorian life. “She got to be her authentic self when she was outside of Europe,” Cardona tells Mental Floss. “She got rid of the corsetry and the crinolines and dressed like a local, albeit a wealthy local. Had she gone back to Europe she would have most likely been forced back into those expectations and highly encouraged to marry.”

Eventful Expeditions

Tinné was so intrigued by Africa, she launched an 1863 expedition to what is now Sudan to discover the source of the Nile, something European explorers had sought since Roman times. Ornithologist Theodor von Heugelin and botanist Hermann Steudner joined Tinné’s 1863 expedition, which required a flotilla of boats to ferry her entourage of soldiers, maids, porters, and clerks, as well as the required camels and donkeys. Tinné’s five dogs, carried in panniers by porters, also accompanied the group.

Though she didn't find the source of the Nile, her adventures were still fruitful. Tinné documented her travels along the region’s waterways and settlements, compiling photographs and drawings now housed in museums. The plants she collected and pressed became the basis for Plantae Tinneanae, a book on the botany of Bahr el-Ghazal, and her letters, sent home by dispatch, described experiences that included traders promising to proclaim her Queen of the Sudan and receiving a marriage proposal from a sultan. 

To a niece, Tinné wrote of her intention to travel beyond Bahr el Ghazal in South Sudan. “When you look at the map you will see there is at the SouthWest of the Equator, a large space empty of names, it’s there we want to go to.”

Accounts of her travels not only thrilled newspaper readers of the day, but also were presented at The Royal Geographic Society. Yet some critics called Tinné a dilettante and claimed women were ill-suited to risky endeavors. “Exploration was this very macho masculine thing in the 19th century,” Cardona says. “To be out exploring and facing your fears. Then you have this 20-something-year-old woman doing it. How manly can it be if she is doing it too?”

Troubled Travels

Alexandrine Tinné's travels were far from solitary.Die Gartenlaube, 1869, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tinné’s excursions were far from a leisurely holiday. Her entourage grew as she traveled, straining their resources. When food supplies ran low, her soldiers threatened to mutiny. In self-taught Arabic, the heiress persuaded them to continue, but she soon had to reverse course: While in Bahr el Ghazal, several members of her expedition became severely ill. Tinné and von Heugelin survived, but her mother, Steudner, and two maids died.

Tinné returned to Khartoum, where Adriana van Cappellen, an aunt who had previously left the expedition, had remained. Only weeks after Tinné arrived in Khartoum, Van Cappellen died unexpectedly. Despite suffering yet another devastating loss, the young explorer chose not to return to the Hague. “And now you will probably ask yourself what I am going to do,” she wrote to her niece. “And I don’t think you will be very astonished when I tell you I am going to stay in the East.”

For the next four years, Tinné lived in Alexandria, Tunis, and Tripoli, sailing the Mediterranean, but still longing to explore uncharted regions. In late 1868, she launched another expedition, aiming to be the first European woman to cross the Sahara. It would be her last.

The expedition began in Tripoli, but ended before ever leaving the country. In August 1869, at the age of 33, Tinné was killed during a fight between her camel drivers and guides while traveling between Murzuq and Ghat [PDF]. She knew the dangers inherent in exploration, at one point expressing her preference for an interesting life: “If you hear today or tomorrow that I have been sent to the other world, then don’t think my last moments were lived in bitterness.”