The soil beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, Czech Republic embraces a macabre sight. In the shadow of the Baroque church that looms above it a flight of steps descends into the earth and leads to a small, cruciform chamber where vaulted ceilings, candelabras and even large pyramids are richly decorated in what would normally be considered a charming and bijou little locale. But it is most definitely not charming, as upon entering, it quickly becomes apparent that the interior designer was going for a rather ‘gruesome’ look. Housed within the chapel are the bones of 40,000 human corpses, and it is these skeletal remains that make up the chapel’s decorations.
A large and elaborate chandelier dominates the central space. Like the other ornamentations it is entirely made up of human remains; femurs, skulls, scapulas and vertebrae combine intricately in an elaborately grisly, nightmarish centrepiece that would not be out of place in Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment 213. In a nod to macabre completionists, the chandelier uses at least one of every single bone in the human body.
Around the chapel, thousands of skulls stare out at the visitor with blank orbits, their pale features long parted from their mandibles. Pelvic sections make up the petals of skeletal flowers while bony chalices inhabit shallow niches. Festively looping chains of bone are draped from the vaulted ceiling like bunting at a village fete. Arcing lines of skulls accomplish a similar effect over the gateways to the ‘pyramids’, each of which occupies a side of the chapel’s transepts. Essentially huge mounds of bones and skulls, the pyramids would be gruesome reminders of mortality anywhere else on the planet, yet here, surrounded by similar deathly objects, they seem curiously normal.
The infamous Black Death and the later Hussite Wars (many of the skulls not used in the ossuary for decorative purposes show evidence of battle wounds) caused many thousands of people to be interred in the church’s grounds and eventually meant the cemetery had to be greatly enlarged. Some time around 1400 a lower chapel was excavated to be used as an ossuary for the bones unearthed from the mass graves that were uncovered during building work. Centuries later, in 1870, a local artisan named František Rint was employed by the Schwarzenberg family to establish some order to the piles of skeletal remains. Rint chose to go one step further and he created this bizarre work, even recreating the Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms and his own signature using the bones.