Restorers to bone up on skills for Kutná Hora ossuary makeover

Photo: CTK

Containing thousands of human bones arranged in various shapes, including a chandelier and coat of arms, an ossuary outside the Central Bohemian town of Kutná Hora is perhaps the Czech Republic’s most ghoulish tourist attraction. However, the “bone church” now faces extensive repair work – raising worries over how to reassemble some formations afterwards.

Photo: CTK
Every year the ossuary in the basement of a Roman Catholic church in Sedlec on the outskirts of Kutná Hora draws upwards of quarter of a million tourists from around the world.

It is a macabre spot, housing the bones of an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 people who died during the mid-14th century Black Death and the Hussite Wars almost 100 years later.

The bones are arranged into all kinds of formations, from the crest of the local aristocratic rulers the Schwarzenbergs to the signature of woodcarver František Rint, who the family hired to create the eerie designs in the 1870s.

Today the Sedlec “bone church” is suffering from structural faults and, administrators say, requires extensive repairs. The first phase, focused on the roof and its frame, will get underway in July.

Photo: CTK
A subsequent stage will be more complicated. The biggest structures in the basement, four bell-shaped mounds of bones, have to be temporarily removed as they are adjacent to supporting columns in need of repair.

Sedlec parish representative Petr Blažek describes what will happen.

“We have to take those pyramids apart completely, one after the other, and to document, layer by layer, how the pyramids are composed. We will then respectfully remove the bones and repair those spaces, safeguarding the columns structurally, plastering the walls and implementing measures against rising damp, and so on. Then we will return the bones, layer by layer, to the form they are in today.”

Unsurprisingly, there are concerns that reassembling the large mounds of bones in their original shape could prove a huge challenge.

Photo: CTK
“At this moment we actually don’t know what is holding the bones together in those pyramids, if there is a supporting system holding them together – we just don’t know. So that makes it more complicated for us. We do have concerns. But we believe that it is necessary to undertake these repairs. If we didn’t, it wouldn’t be long before nothing remained of this important historical landmark. It would fall into ever greater disrepair.”

The good news for would-be visitors is that the Sedlec ossuary will remain open when the repair work is going on in the next couple of years.

Mr. Blažek says visitors will be able to view the complicated process, though some parts will be temporarily off-limits for safety reasons.