The skulls of hundreds of people lined the walls. They rose in pyramids. They grinned above the lintel and formed part of a chandelier. They had even been fashioned into a coat of arms. Whoever these bones had belonged to had long since been forgotten. I doubt if they would have recognized themselves.
I’d waited all morning, listening to the first four notes of Smetana’s Vysehrad repeating over and over again until my train was announced. I had no idea why I wanted to see a room full of human remains. It was unusual, I suppose, and it seemed to possess an honest charm that Prague lacked.
Now, there I was: confronted with stacks of empty skulls, empty eyes, empty mouths. What had they thought about, or seen? Who had they kissed?
Who had they been?
In the guide they were the bones of the Sedlec Ossuary. Nothing more.
By accounts, the bones had been disinterred to make room for their descendants, now also dearly departed. I’d seen this before, in Bari where the bones of the victims of an Ottoman siege were heaped in glass tanks in the walls of a church.
They’d been displayed, but not like this. These skulls and cross-bones had been fashioned into necklaces to adorn the walls of what my guidebook called the ‘bone church’. Piles of them stood like tetrahedrons of cannonballs. Others, maybe strangers when their owners were alive, were fixed together as ornaments. The only colours were grey and butter yellow from the candles. Some stacks of skulls had passages through them and, looking in, my gaze was met by so many unblinking sockets.
These skulls did not bring Kutna Hora its fame. That had been achieved by the people these skulls had belonged to. Kutna Hora was a silver town and, in its heyday, the de facto Czech capital. The basilica of Saint Barbara had been paid for with it. It doesn’t have domes, but tented roofs and it overlooked a valley filling with autumn leaves when I stood there wondering where I could go to eat.
Life is short compared to the length of death, yet there is always time for a good meal. There is much to be said for a tavern by a bone church. The food, delicious in itself, assumes a greater savour when served after an eccentric reminder that the teeth biting into the food could one day grin down from a windowsill and that the tongue that tastes it and asks for more dark ale will one day not exist.
Stuffed to the gills, waddling like a heavily pregnant woman on the cusp of childbirth, I left the inn that had attracted me with its promise of ‘Alchemical Cuisine’. I hadn’t actually tried ‘Master O’Kelly’s Enochian Compound’ (spiced chicken, to the lay-man), but the ossuary had worked its magic.
I thought of those dead and heard them whisper: ‘Enjoy it while you can’.
published 28 June 2014