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Sedlec Ossuary (human skeletal remains)


ArmyGuy

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I took a recent trip to Prague with family and friends. As a side trip, we visited the Sedlec Ossuary. It is a macabre assortment of art to say the least. They say there are between 40-70,000 remains inside this gothic church.

 

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My family doesn't seem very happy to be here.

 

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A woodworker was commissioned to create something out of the tens of thousands of skeletal remains exhumed to create room for more burials on the church grounds. During the late 1200's the Bohemian King sent the abbot from the church to the holy land. The abbot returned with a bit of earth from the holy land and spread it over the church grounds. Because of that, everyone wanted to be buried there.

 

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The coat of arms is quite impressive. Notice the raven picking the eye out of the skull of a Turkish warrior on the lower right.

 

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Guest Kakugo

When I was very young and vacationing at my granfather's house, he used to bring my brother and I to the local church for the Sunday Mass.

 

The only thing I remember is one of the side chapels has this glass reliquiary diplaying what I call "The Grateful Dead": very much like in the band's merchandise, it was a skull ornated with a wreath made from gold foil and precious stones. I have no memory which saint or martyr this skull was supposed to belong to.

This episode set off my lifelong fascination, if one can use that term, for macabre art. I visited (obviously alone) a number of WWI ossuaries and also the structure the French built in Italy to use the remains of their soldiers killed fighting the Austrians in 1859. Many bones and skulls bore the devastating marks of Minié balls.

 

Then the thing rested for a while.

A few years back my grandmother told me my "Grateful Dead" had been bricked over to avoid offending the modern sensitivities of tourists attending Mass.

Then, a couple years back, one of my Swiss friends told me about the rediscovery among a pile of old furniture of a highly bejeweled articulated skeleton in a glass reliquiary in a warehouse somewhere in a Catholic German-speaking Canton.

This set off the old spring. Thanks to Amazon I was able to obtain both Paul Koudounaris' books on the subject (Heavenly Bodies and The Empire of Death) and they were worth every single penny, although I must warn you not to buy them if your tolerance for the most macabre forms of Baroque art is limited and if you have impressionable people in the house.

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Brings new meaning to "coat of arms"...

 

I saw a news magazine story on that place once which I'd forgotten about. Visiting it would give me the creeps...

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Having worked through college at a cemetery myself, this is way better than the nonsense we do to our loved ones today. WAY better. If you saw what they do at funeral homes with that embalming fluid (it looks like pepto bismol), you'd wish for being lost at sea....

 

But I have to say, I haven't been there, and it might indeed be a little creepy. It's on my bucket list, and I hope I find out some day.

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Truly haunting photos. The closest I care to come to that place is the well knawed butcher provided cow bone that my dog left in the yard.

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@Upflying: The tour people didn't mention Napoleon while we were there. Why do you ask?

 

@Jake: I still think clowns are creepy. Now, if the power went out while we were there, I'd be the first one out.

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Kind of reminds me of the last 60 seconds of an equally bizarre Kate Bush video....

 

Long time since I listened to that CD. House is swaying now. Thanks!

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@Upflying: The tour people didn't mention Napoleon while we were there. Why do you ask?

It was a play on words, Napoleon Bone-Apart.

Sorry gallows humor.

We cops mention Bonaparte at gnarly crash scenes.

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It was a play on words, Napoleon Bone-Apart.

Sorry gallows humor.

We cops mention Bonaparte at gnarly crash scenes.

 

BWAHHAHAHAAHA!! That was funny.

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Fantastic post, Army Guy. I'd never heard of this place. Thank you.

 

I first encountered this sort of grisly art in England. Funerary monuments from the Middle Ages were frequently of rotting corpses, worms crawling out of skulls, etc.

I was told the effect was to remind Christians of the importance of tending to one's immortal soul and the transience of all flesh.

We Americans have tended to become so estranged from death as a reality of everyday life that we've become very finicky about it. The people who created this stuff were much more in tune with death, from seeing chickens beheaded as a routine to seeing corpses laid out for burial.

Sorry, that's my pontification for the day.

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Fantastic post, Army Guy. I'd never heard of this place. Thank you.

 

I first encountered this sort of grisly art in England. Funerary monuments from the Middle Ages were frequently of rotting corpses, worms crawling out of skulls, etc.

I was told the effect was to remind Christians of the importance of tending to one's immortal soul and the transience of all flesh.

We Americans have tended to become so estranged from death as a reality of everyday life that we've become very finicky about it. The people who created this stuff were much more in tune with death, from seeing chickens beheaded as a routine to seeing corpses laid out for burial.

Sorry, that's my pontification for the day.

I assume the cause of "Middle Ages" death was primarily from the plague. Wouldn't corpses be burned or buried to prevent the spread of the black death?

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Guest Kakugo

I assume the cause of "Middle Ages" death was primarily from the plague. Wouldn't corpses be burned or buried to prevent the spread of the black death?

 

Plague has existed in Europe at least since Justinian's times. It alternated between local outbreaks, major catastrophes and long spells of relief.

A massive plague outbreak following the devastating, decades long war between Byzantium and Sassanian Persia was one of the many factors accounting for Islam's meteoric rise.

 

What is usually called the Black Death was a devastating plague pandemic which hit China first and then spread westward towards Europe around 1350. It wiped out roughly one third of European population, not mention the whole Mongol ruling family, leading to the final collapse of the already muribund Pax Mongolica.

After that the plague became endemic in Europe until well into the XVIII century, though after the Black Death outbreak were usually localized.

 

Around here we have a lot of "plague chapels", usually dedicated to St Roch, the patron saint of plague victims. They were usually built after plague outbreaks as ex-voto and most stand on the site of former lazar houses (not sure of the exact term in English) and plague pits.

Corpses weren't burned, but buried. If time and resources allowed they were covered with lime, otherwise just wrapped in a shroud.

 

Mind nobody had a clue on how the plague spread until the early XX century, when Yersin and Kitasato discovered both the bacterium responsible and means of propagation. Bodies were usually disposed of by prisoners given a grim choice (if you survive this, you are free to go), members of religious orders or people who had survived the plague and hence were believed to have become immune to it.

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