Monday, August 1, 2016

The church of bones

Kutna Hora
I first visited Kutna Hora nearly six years ago, during my great trek across Europe. I went for a day trip from Prague with some mad Greek. We explored the ossuary and the two main churches, and then ended the day hidden in fog at the train station—I was trying to figure out which of those ancient electric trains to jump on to get home while he was trying to figure out how to score some weed from some neighborhood kids that were huddled nearby. Many years later, weed was decriminalized and I moved to Prague (the two are not actually related). It’s one of the most premiere tourist sites in Czech Republic and really, if you’re in Prague for three days, then you should take your time on one of those to visit the village. Why? Because there’s an ossuary there that’s filled with bone sculptures.

But don’t go just for the calcium craftsmanship, go also for the other two churches that are there. You can get a discount pass for the three attractions, which also includes the Cathedral of Our Lady and St. Barbara's. If you’re in for a really intensive day, you can visit the place where—I overheard one local tour guide saying—“is the place the Jesuits used to take poor Czech children and brainwash them with the mindless idiocy of Christianity”. As interesting as that sounds, I’d suggest skipping it and visiting the nearby Vlassky Dvur (the Italian Court) instead, which was an old mint and part-time royal residence, or to the Hradek, where you can tour a medieval mine.

Kutna Hora is a thousand-year-old village, which started with the founding of the Sedlec Monastery. Silver was discovered nearby and the place became an immediate attraction and it was soon a booming mining town, something that is not lost on visitors of St. Barbara's. It also became the site of the royal mint, where the Bohemian Kingdom would press its money.

Sedlec Ossuary

Sedlec Ossuary and the plague column
The last time I visited the ossuary was with my parents a few weeks ago. There seemed to have been going on a death metal festival nearby, as there were no limits to the numbers of darkly dressed Goth punk rockers wandering about, with lots of black, face makeup, black, purple, or dark red hair, and piercings. For a moment I had to remind myself I wasn’t in Finland. It seemed the perfect pilgrimage for such patriots of punk, given the theme of the place. Of course, the place itself doesn’t have such a dark history—there are no Draculas or Bathorys in the mix—just a bit of bizarreness that results when people take religion a bit too seriously. 

Sedlec Ossuary was originally the small cemetery of a Cistercian monastery founded in the 12th century, but it wasn’t really known as an ossuary until the Bohemian King Otakar II sent the abbot to go down to the Holy Land and check in on the peaceful folk making camp down there. When he came back, he brought some dirt from Jerusalem—as you do—and added it to the monastery. Before he knew it, it became the most popular place in all the land to be buried.

The chandelier and candle holders

Within 300 years, after the Black Death and a few wars, thousands of bodies had been buried in the tiny plot of land and something had to be done. They built a tomb in the middle and put to task a half-blind monk to take the scores of dead bodies and exhume them one at a time, so that they could have bare skeletons and make more room for the dead. 

It was in the the 1800s when they had the best idea. a member of the noble house of Schwarzenberg—still a prominent Czech family today, owning many a castle—had the brilliant idea to get more room there by making it into art. So they hired the woodworker Frantisek Rint and set him to work. He made a coat of arms, a chandelier, candle holders, and four gigantic pyramids of skulls and crossbones. A true marvel in the world, making the ossuary an absolutely unique place. 

The House of Schwarzenberg

Church of Our Lady

To be honest, the church itself is not that interesting. Being Cistercian, it was all bare and not decorative, not at all your typical Catholic Church of Central Europe, which tends to be gaudy and Baroque. The 14th century church—which suffered from a huge fire during the Hussite Wars and some 200 years of neglect—was restored in the 1700s but put into a plain, aesthetic form of the Baroque Gothic style. What’s interesting about Our Lady is that you can go up into the roof. During the latest 2001 restoration work, they decided to put in a walkway above the vaults from the choir loft to the back loft. This can be reached from the stairs just left of the altar and reliquary, and you can explore the tops of the vaults. 

The Church of Our Lady
St. Barbara's

If you’re driving, then the best way to get to St. Barbara's that includes a nice, scenic walk through the old town is to park at Morovy Sloup and to make sure you walk by the Vlassky Dvur (the Italian Court). If you're taking the train in or walking from Sedlec, this is really the only way. You can take a tour of the Vlassky Dur or continue on to a really cute pedestrian street where you can try a glass of the local wines or have a beer in a garden pub. Then continue your walk up to the GASK—the old Jesuit brainwashing chamber-turned museum—where you can check out some modern Czech art (this is the fourth place on the ticket deal, if you purchase all four). The restaurant just in front of the GASK is the best restaurant in town, with some killer duck and great prices. So eat there. The walkway alongside the GASK is stunning, with a nice view of a nearby hill, a creek, and a small stone wall lined with statues of the religious and royal famous.
The GASK and St. Barbara's
The construction of St. Barbara's, a church dedicated to the patron saint of mining, started in 1388, led by the son of the famous architect, Peter Parlor, who had designed St. Vitus in Prague. The church is one of the most interesting Gothic designs I’ve ever seen, with three green spires pointing upward from the central nave and flying buttresses surrounding almost the entire church. Inside can be seen many pieces dedicated to miners, from a statue of a miner himself, to paintings of the coat of arms for the miners and the pulleymen. They were two houses of the same guild apparently too, one for the guys digging, and one for the guys lifting up the stones. 

St. Barbara's

No comments:

Post a Comment