Czech tales from the crypt: mummification as a status symbol

Capuchin Crypt of Brno, photo: Vít Pohanka

What, apart from blue blood, do Wenceslaus I, Přemysl Otakar II, John of Luxembourg and Charles IV, the first king of Bohemia to become Holy Roman Emperor, have in common? Their royal corpses were eviscerated via an abdominal incision, their body cavities filled with herbs, and then placed in a tank filled with resin and a mixture of potassium chloride and sulphate of potash. Until the practice was forbidden in the Czech lands in the late 18th century, a surprising number of bodies of socially and politically prominent people were anthropogenically mummified in such manner.

Capuchin Crypt of Brno,  photo: Vít Pohanka

When most people think of mummies, images of Egyptian pharaohs (or perhaps Hollywood B movies) likely first spring to mind.

But in the Czech lands, too, there are quite a few conserved mummies, coming principally from the Renaissance era. During the 16th and 17th centuries, it was not uncommon for very important persons to be mummified to some degree before being placed in churches, cloisters or crypts, says Dr. Andrej Shbat, an expert in paleopathology – the study of ancient human remains.

“Probably the best-known Czech mummies are in the Klatovy catacombs of the former Jesuit church. Mummification in ancient Egypt was done for religious reasons, and the entire body was artificially preserved through the use of various chemical mixtures. They eviscerated the bodies – they removed the organs, placing them in separate vessels next to the mummy, including the brain and heart.”

Andrej Shbat,  photo: archive of Charles University
Dr. Shbat, an assistant professor from the Institute of Anatomy of Charles University’s first faculty of medicine, has taken part in archaeological digs and anthropological research at numerous local burial sites.

The mummies of Klatovy that he refers to date back to the 17th century and are today a major historical attraction – the remains are on display in glass-covered caskets. A study carried out in 1977 determined that some chemicals and waxes were used on the deceased, many of whom were Moravian Knights or members of the aristocratic Bokůvka family.

“When it comes to Czech mummies, the idea was not to mummify them artificially as in Egypt but naturally, although we do find examples here of deliberate mummification. That meant placing bodies in catacombs so that the air flow would cause the corpse to dry and preserve the remains.

“They did that in Klatovy, as did the Capuchin monks in Brno. There are also some bodies stored in crypts that mummified unintentionally – the constant air flow and environment allowed for natural mummification.”

The Capuchin Crypt of Brno that Dr. Shbat mentioned was used until the year 1784, when Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of the Habsburg Lands, issued an edict banning burials within the city limits, in order to prevent the possible spread of disease.

By that time, some 200 holy men were buried there. A couple dozen remains are largely intact, though the bodies were laid directly on simple wooden planks on the ground, with their heads on brick ‘pillows’. Crypt manager Kateřina Hlouchová explained why on a recent tour.

“Visitors can see two rows of Friars clothed in the remains of their typical brown habits. They were not buried in coffins but laid directly on the bare ground with only a couple of bricks under their heads. That was a typical Capuchin Order burial custom in line with the philosophy of St. Francis of Assisi, their founder. He criticized the Catholic Church’s tendency to accumulate worldly property and wealth.

“This is a kind of a thin red line going through the whole history of the order. So, up to this day, if anyone enters the order, they must promise to observe the principles of purity, poverty, and obedience. By lying on the bare ground, the Friars demonstrated they did not even need a coffin – that this would be a needless luxury.”

Klatovy catacombs,  photo: Czech Television

Mummification as a status symbol

Europe is home to a diverse spectrum of spontaneous and anthropogenic mummies. Some of the best-preserved specimens have emerged from bogs, and of Capuchin monks who throughout the continent intentionally preserved bodies. These mummies have yielded a wealth of information, providing insight into people’s cultures, customs and diets.

It is not entirely clear why the practice began. Capuchins, an order of Franciscan friars that originated in Italy, mummified the first member of their order, brother Silverstro of Gubbio, in 1599. Their monastery in Palermo had outgrown its original cemetery, and so monks excavated crypts below it – but that doesn’t explain what happened next.

The friars dehydrated bodies on ceramic pipes, washed them with vinegar, and embalmed them, then dressed the corpses in humble robes and ropes traditional worn as a penance. Over the centuries, it became a status symbol in Italy to be entombed in the Capuchin catacombs along with the friars. Dr. Shbat again:

Klatovy catacombs,  photo: Czech Television
“I’m not a historian, and I really can’t speak to the origins, but the practice doesn’t seem to correspond to the Christian belief that ‘all are of dust, and all turn to dust again’. Of course, every religion has local habits and there are many variations of Christianity, but the mummification of the Capuchins does seem strange.

“In Klatovy, we have mummies from the upper classes, and that may have been influenced by Italian trends, the spirit of the Renaissance. Italy was known for mummification, with hundreds, even thousands of mummies from the elite classes surviving, especially in Palermo, where they were mummified both naturally and by specialists. So, these influences may have led to mummification here, for example among the Capuchins.”

It was Přemysl Otakar II, whose royal remains as mentioned earlier were deliberately mummified, who founded the town of Klatovy, a decade before his death in 1278. But mummification only caught on there four centuries later. Between 1676 and 1783, over hundreds were persevered and laid to rest in the crypt chambers.

In Christian tradition, some bodies of saints, or parts of them – relics – are conserved and venerated. But had true mummification been the aim of the Jesuits in Klatovy, as it was for the Capuchins in Brno? Václav Chroust, head of the local catacombs association says the evidence is clear:

“Did they plan from the start on mummifying the bodies, or did it result naturally from the conditions? I think it’s obvious it was intentional. The Jesuits did everything they could so that healthy people could enter the crypt repeatedly. The dead were placed in open coffins lined with hops, which took in moisture and worked as an antiseptic. Within a month or so, the ventilation system dried the bodies to the state we find them in today.”

An unfortunate reconstruction of the Klatovy crypt in 1937 disturbed the ventilation system of constant air flow which the Jesuit priests had created. Many mummies rapidly decayed beyond recognition, and so were buried in the adjacent cemetery of St. Jacob.

A few dozen, though, are still in remarkable shape. Among the best preserved was the mummy of Anežka Kunhuta Příchovská, who was born in 1612 and laid to rest there in 1678. Thanks to modern facial reconstruction techniques, her likeness, in period dress, now greets visitors to the catacombs.

‘Wet’ and ‘Dry’ mummies

Capuchin Crypt of Brno,  photo: Vít Pohanka
There are numerous other crypts boasting mummies throughout the Czech Republic, from various other Christian orders. But there are two basic kinds of mummy, explains Dr. Shbat, the paleopathology expert.

“Mummified bodies are either so-called ‘dry’ or ‘wet’ types, which stems from where, when and how they are placed. The Capuchins monks are placed on a wooden plank so that liquids from the decomposing body are easily drained and evaporated.

“But there are also cases where mummified bodies are in closed coffins made of zinc, tin, or lead. The individual decomposes and remains in its own juices. These acidic liquids prevent further decomposition and repel insects, and form a ‘wet’ mummy. It is similar with so-called bog bodies found, for example, in peat bogs of northern Europe.”

It is the ‘dry’ type of mummy that a tourist or religious pilgrim is most likely to encounter. For example, Abbess Marie Elekta of Jesus, an Italian-born Carmelite nun who founded several convents. Her mummy, dressed in a nun’s habit and enclosed in a glass case, has pride of place at the Church of St. Benedict in Prague’s Hradčany district. The Abbess was elected to sainthood when it was discovered that her body had not corrupted years after death in 1663.

Nearby, in side altars at the Church of St. Thomas, an Augustinian order, are two well-dressed mummies, also in glass cases. Identified as the martyrs St. Boniface and St. Justus, precious little else is known about their deeds or miracles performed. Adding to the mystery, the latter’s face is concealed behind a metal mask.

At the Benedictine monastery in Broumov, near the Polish border, are dozens of mummies, mainly burghers who paid for the honour of such a burial. Most famous among them is Flemish-born baroness Magdalena Grambo, who founded Vamberk’s lace tradition.

(Medical) tales from the crypt

Photo: Czech Television
Mummies of 18th century nobles can also be found in the St. Lawrence Church crypt in Chodov, a site that Dr. Shbat has studied closely. His research involves taking DNA samples and analysing the soft tissue, if present, and making a computed tomography scan – X-ray measurements taken from different angles to produce cross-sectional images, allowing a peek inside without cutting into the mummy. What is there to learn? Dr. Shbat again:

“We detect disease, fractures, birth defects, cancer. DNA analysis is used to determine kinship, but we also take skeletal samples to analyse trace elements to determine the amount of lead, strontium, zinc and the like. From that, we reconstruct the diet of the individual and where they lived over time – diets differed across Europe.

“Collecting DNA also reveals the presence of bacteria and viruses. It tells us a lot about the spread of diseases, which is very important today in an era of large migrations, because diseases that had disappeared in our country are reappearing.”

The science is so advanced, Dr. Shbat and his colleagues could determine that one mummy from Chodov was a woman who died in her mid-30s, during her 12th pregnancy, and suffered from multiple myeloma, a kind of leukaemia.

Such information helps advance contemporary medical science – in this case, specifically whether it is safe for women who develop that plasma cell disease to have children, whether the disease hereditary, and so on.

Egyptian mummies as Czech forbidden fruit

Náprstek Museum,  photo: Miloš Turek
As noted earlier, Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, banned mummification in 1784. But bodies of the elite in the Czech lands were still sometimes immersed in solutions of salt and vinegar, and extracts of fruit and juniper needles.

Though perhaps in part a religious ritual cleansing of the dead, scholars believe the practice continued mainly to disinfect the bodies for the sake of the living, not to prepare its owner for the afterlife.

On a side and final note, although the making of new mummies was forbidden in the Czech lands, the collecting of Egyptian antiquities – mummies included – flourished in the aftermath of Napoleon’s campaign at the turn of the 19th century to the then Ottoman territory.

Today, the Czech Republic now has one of the largest collections of ancient mummies outside of Egypt, housed in Prague’s Náprstek Museum.

– Dr. Andrej Shbat was interviewed by Czech Radio's Alžběta Medková