Photographer’s Guide to Sedlec Ossuary

“The Most Ornate Arrangement of Human Remains in the World”

Photo by Richard Mortel

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The Czech Republic is perhaps best known for its stunning city of Prague. A jewel of Europe, this city is world renown for its architecture, history, and its famous Old Town Square. But, only a short bus ride from this bustling European metropolis and you can find yourself in the village of Kutná Hora. Founded in 1142, Kutná Hora is an ancient relic of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Once the financial center of the Kingdom, local silver mines supplied raw materials to the Royal Mint, which in turn, provided currency to the ancient Kingdom. Such wealth and opulence naturally made Kutná Hora a popular place among the Bohemian elite. But as much of these stories go, eventually the mines dried up and with it went the ruling classes. What remains is a UNESCO world heritage site that offers a reprieve from the bustle of its larger cousin, Prague. But, we do not travel down the well worn cobbled stone walkways of Kutná Hora just to photograph the stunning churches and ancient architecture. No, dear reader, we are here on entirely different photographic business. For Kutná Hora is home to something else entirely. A photo location that is one of a kind. Today we visit the horrifically macabre Sedlec Ossuary.

Cherub Detail at Sedlec Ossuary - Photo by Davis Staedtler
Cherub Detail at Sedlec Ossuary - Photo by Davis Staedtler

History of the Sedlec Ossuary

The “Bone Church” as it is known is a one of a kind ossuary which is the final resting place of over 40,000 human remains. This fact in itself is unremarkable, and the conventional definition of what an ossuary is. Piles of bones line hundreds of these tombs around the world. But, it is the artistic arrangement of these remains that make the Sedlec Ossuary so compelling.

Bone Arch with Skulls in Foreground at Sedlec Ossuary - Photo by Mr. Theklan
Bone Arch with Skulls in Foreground at Sedlec Ossuary - Photo by Mr. Theklan

Everywhere you look, the white bones of the dead hang artfully in dioramas of macabre beauty. Each bone carefully arranged and placed to create artful representations, garlands, crests, and more. The intricately woven bones become part of the architecture of the space, and the line between construction material and human remain is lost. At its centre hangs a massive bone chandelier that is equally awe-inspiring and disturbing.

Bone Church Chandelier - Photo by Davis Staedtler
Bone Church Chandelier - Photo by Davis Staedtler

The genesis for this bizarre display began in 1278 when the King of Bohemia sent Henry, the abbot of the local Cisterian monastery, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. While there, Henry visited Golgotha, the legendary hill where Christ endured his crucifixion, and where his blood fell to the soil below. The abbot collected some of this soil and returned to Sedlec, where he sprinkled this holy earth over the abbey’s cemetery. In doing so, he began a chain of events that would lead to now-infamous Sedlec Ossuary.

Resting Place of the Bohemia Elite

Word quickly spread among Bohemia’s elite and Sedlec rapidly became a popular resting place. By the 14th century, the Black Death and the Hussite Wars of the 15th century eventually lead to the abbey’s cemetery becoming filled. During this period, construction began on a gothic-styled church with an adjacent chapel. This smaller chapel, the Sedlec Ossuary, would house the piles of bones unearthed during construction and those displaced by new burials. The number of bones rapidly increased in the Ossuary, and by 1870 it became clear that some organization was required. The Schwarzenberg family, local nobles, hired a local woodcarver named František Rint to put the now heaping piles of bones into some order. The result is a one of a kind collection of the dead, unnerving and beautiful.

Skull and Bones Close Up Sculpture - Photo by Богдан
Skull and Bones Close Up Sculpture - Photo by Богдан

Visiting the Sedlec Ossuary

  • You can find the world-famous Bone Church in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora. Located beneath the cemetery Church of the All Saints, it is not difficult to find. 
  • The Sedlec Ossuary staggers its hours depending on the season, and a quick visit to their website provides more info:https://www.sedlec.info/kostnice/
  • Admission fees of 120 CZK (roughly 5 USD) are more than reasonable for a visit and will grant you access to the Ossuary and the stunning Sedlec Cathedral. Purchase tickets at the local info centre, at 279 Zámecká, a short walk from the Ossuary.

See the Sedlec Ossuary on the PIXEO Map

Photographing the Bone Church

As of 2020, the church officials will enact a ban of general photography within the Bone Church. This decision was adopted to respect the dignity of the dead in Ossuary, and likely a result of the rampant rise of Instagram culture and selfie seeking tourists. Therefore you will need to request permission to photograph the church at least three days in advance. No word yet on how much a photography permit will cost, but we understand and agree with the decision. 

Local photographers offer photography tours of the church, so as the ramifications of the ban begin to settle in, these may be the best source of info on the matter post-2020. Johnnys Prague Photography Tours is an excellent place to start and get more info (https://www.johnnyspraguetours.com/sedlec-ossuary-kutna-hora-photography/

Flashes and tripods are not welcome within the chapel, so a high ISO capable camera is essential. While the chapel is relatively spacious and well lit, we recommend a variable zoom lens capable of a decent wide-angle, as well as a fast 50mm prime lens. 

Bone Church Sculpture of Raven and Skull from Coat of Arms - Photo by Nan Palmero
Bone Church Sculpture of Raven and Skull from Coat of Arms - Photo by Nan Palmero

Conclusion

The Sedlec Ossuary is a one of a kind photography location. Be sure to show this sacred space the respect it deserves, and proper planning will ensure that you capture some of the most stunning and fascinating photography you ever have taken. Be sure to visit the local sights and attractions as well as this part of the world is absolute heaven for the travelling photographer.

Bone Church Pedestal Detail of Skull and Bones - Photo by Marina Bedikyan
Bone Church Pedestal Detail of Skull and Bones - Photo by Marina Bedikyan

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