Back in the Spring I visited Prague. As everyone says, it is wonderful. It’s an incredibly popular place to go for one of these sexy “city break” holidays (strangely sexy when you consider it’s just saying “a holiday that’s shorter than you’d like and tries to cram in as much as usual). One of the problems I’ve always had with city breaks is how hard it can be to feel like you’ve really made any contact with the place you’ve gone to. The pressure is perhaps higher than a standard two-week holiday, and yet the more you run around seeing everything the guidebook says, the more you feel like you’re looking at the place through glass. What I like most about travelling is making a real contact with the place you’ve gone to: a sort of feeling that it’s drawn some blood and you’ve also drawn some of its… So Prague. Determined to find something off the beaten track. Enter Sedlec and its unique Church.
Sedlec is a small suburb of Kutna Hora, which you can get to in about an hour on the train from Prague. Just off the main road into Kutna Hora, there’s a small chapel, set in a very green graveyard. There is a statue of a Saint outside, with a halo of stars made from gold metal. There’s a low-key, local restaurant opposite. The church-yard is quiet. The church itself has spires, and at the top are skull and crossbone motifs.
Sedlec is not actually a church – it’s an Ossuary: a tomb. Inside, it contains the remains of about 40,000 people. They have been used to decorate the building: their skulls cover the walls, their limbs hang from the ceiling as a massive chandelier and their bones form a huge coat of arms on one wall.
The Ossuary has an official website here which tells you the story in full. Basically, in the Middle Ages, the Abbott of Sedlec went to the Holy Land. He took soil from Golgotha and brought it back to Sedlec, where he sprinkled it on the graveyard. It became known as a good place to be buried, and by the 1500s, there were too many bones in the ground already, so the Ossuary was constructed. For some reason, in the 17 and 1800s, they decided to decorate the Ossuary…
We live with religion from a very small age, and it’s easy to feel a certain bored disdain for it. Perhaps respect for certain religious individuals, but it’s easy to feel that overall, religion is a known quantity. Those who don’t believe it don’t see the mystery; or we think we don’t need it anyway. Sedlec proves, I think, that religion – and the way we use it (and are used by it?) – is endlessly surprising. It’s
a very strange place, because you realise that for all its solid, concrete, righteous appearance, belief
and faith are fervent, mutable ideas, impossible to constrain by rules. It is both chilling and amusing to imagine what fundamentalists – be they Dubya and Ashcroft, or Iraqi terrorists – would make of Sedlec.