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 Ossuary
A Baroque period bone chandelier in the Sedlec Ossuary
MICHAL 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 chapel
Visitors look at the coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg noble family at the Sedlec Ossuary chapel
MICHAL 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 written in bone at the Sedlec Ossuary
Rint's signature at the Sedlec Ossuary
Wilson44691, 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.

10 Vacation Destinations That Ended Up in the Dictionary

iStock/Jasmina007
iStock/Jasmina007

Thinking of getting away from it all this summer? How about France? Italy? The Mediterranean? Or what about somewhere more exotic, like north Africa or southeast Asia? Well, no need to pop down to your local travel agent to find out more, because all of these can be found much closer to home in the pages of a dictionary …

1. Genoa, Italy

In the early Middle Ages, the city of Genoa in northwest Italy became known for its production of a type of fustian, a thick, hard-wearing cotton fabric typically used to make workmen’s clothes. In English, this cloth became known as gene fustian in honor of the city in which it was made, but over time gene altered to jean, and the hard-wearing workmen’s clothes made from it became known as jeans. The fabric that jeans are made of today, however, is denim—which was originally manufactured in and named for the city of Nîmes in southern France.

2. Paris, France

Speaking of France: The Romans knew Paris as Lutetia Parisorum, meaning “the swamps of the Parisii,” after the name of a local Gaulish tribe. It’s this Latin name, Lutetia, that is the origin of the chemical element lutetium, which was discovered by a team of scientists working in Paris’s Sorbonne University in 1907. Not that Paris is the only city with an element named after it, of course: hafnium derives from the Latin name for Copenhagen, Denmark; darmstadtium takes its name from Darmstadt in Germany; and holmium is named for Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. Speaking of which …

3. Sweden

A light napped leather made from the softer underside of animal hides, suede has been manufactured in northern Europe for centuries. But it wasn’t until the early 1800s that soft, high-quality suede gloves first began to be imported into Britain from France, when they were sold under their chic French name of gants du suèdes—or, the “gloves of Sweden.” The name soon stuck, and eventually came to be used of the fabric suede itself.

4. Milan, Italy

If you’re looking to buy a chic hat to match your chic Swedish gloves, then you’re best off heading to your local milliner’s. Millinery takes its name from the Italian city of Milan, from where all manner of high-end fashion accessories, including laces, gloves, handbags, and hats, were imported into England in the early 17th century. The name milliner—which was originally just another word for a Milanese person—eventually came to refer to anyone involved in the sale of such products (Shakespeare used it to mean a glove salesman in The Winter’s Tale), but over time its use came to refer only to someone involved in the hat trade.

5. Dubrovnik, Croatia

From Italy, it’s a short ferry trip to the stunning Croatian city—and UNESCO World Heritage site—of Dubrovnik. Like Paris, it’s Dubrovnik’s Latin name, Ragusa, that has found a permanent place in the language. In the late Middle Ages, the city became known for its large fleets of merchant ships that were known across Mediterranean Europe as ragusea, but in English this name eventually simplified (and metathesized) to argosy.

6. Cyprus

In Latin, copper was known as cuprum (which is why its chemical symbol is Cu, not Co). In turn, cuprum is a contraction of the Latin phrase Cyprium aes, meaning the “Cyprian metal,” because historically the Mediterranean island of Cyprus was a principal copper mine of the Roman Empire.

7. Mahón, Spain

Another Mediterranean island to have (apparently) found its way into the dictionary is Minorca, the second-largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands. When the island and its capital, Mahón, was captured by France during the Seven Years’ War in 1756, a local speciality was supposedly taken home by the victorious French troops: sauce mahonnaise, as it was known, made from a mix of oil, vinegar, and egg yolk, eventually became a popular condiment and garnish and was first introduced to the English-speaking world as mayonnaise in the early 1800s.

8. The Canary Islands

Another Spanish island group, the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa, gave their name to the small finches that were found there by European settlers in the 16th century. The wild birds were originally a dull greenish color, but have since been domesticated and selectively bred to come in almost any color possible, although traditional yellow canaries are by far the most familiar. Despite their contribution to the language, incidentally, the Canary Islands themselves are actually named after dogs.

9. Tangier, Morocco

Head northeast from the Canary Islands and you’ll reach the Moroccan port of Tangier on the Straits of Gibraltar, which in the 18th century gave its name to a small, slightly darker-colored variety of mandarin orange that was grown in the area—the tangerine.

10. Sri Lanka

The word serendipity was coined by the English author and historian Horace Walpole, who wrote in a letter to his friend (and distant cousin) Horace Mann in 1754 of a discovery that was “almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.” Walpole explained that he had taken the word from “a silly fairy tale” called The Three Princes of Serendip, whose title characters “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” It might come from a “silly fairy tale,” but the magical land of Serendip is actually a real place—it’s an old name for the island of Sri Lanka.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

Environmental Group Lets You Kayak European Waterways for Free in Exchange for Picking Up Trash

iStock/levers2007
iStock/levers2007

Between airfare, hotels, and dining out, not every traveler to Europe has room in their budget for a kayaking tour. GreenKayak, an environmental organization based out of Denmark, offers tourists and locals a way to explore waterways in some European countries for free—they just have to be comfortable with picking up some trash along the way.

As Lifehacker reports, GreenKayak launched its pollution-fighting initiative in April 2017. The concept is simple: Volunteers receive free kayak rentals in exchange for using the trip as a chance to beautify their surroundings. Two hours of free kayaking time comes with a paddle, a life vest, a trash-grabber, and a garbage pail. In the past two years, GreenKayakers have collected close to 24,000 pounds of trash from lakes, canals, and rivers in Europe.

GreenKayak started its environmental project in Denmark, a country that's famous for its picturesque waterways. The initiative has since expanded to cities in Ireland, Germany, Sweden, and Norway. Anyone interested in taking a free boat tour and making the world a cleaner place can book a kayak for up to two people through GreenKayak's website.

Kayaking isn't the only way people can clean up polluted waterways in Europe. Amsterdam is home to the Plastic Whale: an open-air boat made from recycled material on which tourists can "fish" for discarded trash.

[h/t Lifehacker]

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