Klatovy: Walking among mummies

Photo: Vít Pohanka

The Czech royal town of Klatovy was founded in the 13th century by King Přemysl Otakar II. It was on an important trade route from Prague to Bavaria in Germany but also gained importance as an important educational center. Members of the Jesuit order came to Klatovy during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th Century. And they left more than just a few beautiful baroque buildings. One of their legacies is a crypt with dozens of mummified bodies of people who died in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Klatovy Town Hall and Church,  photo: Vít Pohanka

The rectangular main Klatovy square is dominated by two buildings: the first is the spectacular Black Tower from the 16th century. It is nearly 300 feet tall and is, well, black. The other imposing building is a baroque church with a rathe long full official name: it is the Virgin Mary's Immaculate Conception and Saint Ignatius' Jesuit Church. But perhaps the most significant sight which attracts visitors is well hidden in the basement of the church. There I meet a man who is going to be my guide, deputy mayor Václav Chroust.

“We used to have nearly 200 mummified bodies here. They were preserved naturally because of an ingenious ventilations system relying on natural circulation of air.”

Václav Chroust,  photo: Vít Pohanka

Mr. Chroust adds that the unique atmosphere of the crypt was damaged by reconstructions in the 20th century. Most of the bodies were than damaged and had to be buried. But 38 of them are still well preserved and the town uses them in order to tell the story of Klatovy and its Jesuit past.

“We need to understand our origins to understand ourselves. The bodies that are here are a ‘memento mori’– reminder of the dead. We should remember them, keep in mind that we will die, too. Another Latin aphorism we could use here is ‘carpe diem’–literally ‘seize the day’. It bides us to use every day of our lives to some useful, positive purpose.”

Anežka Kunhuta Příchovská,  photo: Vít Pohanka

People are not drawn to the Crypt under the church in Klatovy just out of curiosity. The town invested with the help of EU funds significantly into the exposition. You can learn a lot about the life of the town itself in the 17th and 18th centuries. But, also about the Jesuit order that established one of the most important educational centers in the Czech Lands which were then part of the Habsburg Empire.

Anežka Kunhuta Příchovská - reconstruction,  photo: Vít Pohanka

Václav Chroust continues:

“By the way, one of their students was Václav Matěj Kramerius, future first publisher of a Czech newspaper. He was actually born here in Klatovy, attended the Jesuit ‘gymnazium’, as the school was called, and it was the basis of his education.”

Mr. Chroust stresses the importance the Klatovy Jesuit School played in the history of the whole nation. The members of the order had a talent for balancing their books with economic activities.

“The school and their other properties in Klatovy blossomed. They could afford to hire the best architects and artists, such as Giovanni Domenik Orsi, Carlo Lurago, Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer. They worked for them not just here in but in other towns and villages. That is why we have so many beautiful baroque buildings also in Přeštice, Nicov and Týnec.”

Gallery about Jesuits,  photo: Vít Pohanka

The exposition and mummified bodies in Klatovy can also teach us something about ourselves.

There are about 40 preserved mummified bodies in Klatovy,  photo: Vít Pohanka

“They are a ‘memento mori’, remind us that we should remember the dead, bear in mind that we will die, too.  But not in a threatening way, it leads us to another Latin aphorism: ‘carpe diem” It means literally ‘seize the day’, but means generally  that we should live every day in a good and positive manner.

So, walking among mummies is not just a curious and slightly eerie experience. It can be an interesting and important spiritual lesson. A reminder, that we are not in this physical world forever and should try our best not to waste any of our days.