Memento Mori: The Art of Death
‘Whoever decorated this place, had the weirdest, absolutely bizarre imagination,’ my companion mumbles in shock when the two of us finally enters a tiny chapel.
What I see the next second explains the enormous amount of tourists, swarming this small baroque town of Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic.
Bones… bones and skulls… they’re everywhere. On the wooden panels of the chapel’s walls, on specially designed triangular displays, hanging down from the vaulted gothic ceiling, arranged in fancy garlands and crosses, and finally… a massive, about a meter in diameter, chandelier of skulls stares at me from the ceiling with its hundreds of empty eye-sockets.
The air smells a bit stuffy of lit up candles and amount of visitors, crowding in a small nave. A pair of coffins, about two meters high, built of skulls and larger bones, grin at me with their hundreds of toothless jaws. All the decoration of the Sedlec Ossuary, or Kostnice v Sedlci in Czech, is made of human bones.
‘It’s better than Halloween.’ My companion grins, shooting pictures without a break.
I must agree. The Sedlec Ossuary looks like a set for some surrealistic, bizarre, David Lynch-esque type of film, but the real story of this chapel is far more tragic.
Once the prosperous place, the second most important city in Bohemia after Prague, Kutna Hora was growing its power and influence on silver mining and even became the residence for a few Bohemian kings. Together with the city, the Sedlec monastery was growing too with its Gothic church and chapel. In the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death consumed the city, and then in the 15th century, the Hussite Wars swept through the region, bringing even more death and destruction.
‘Memento mori. Remember that you must die.’ I sigh, observing the elaborate coat-of-arms on the wall made of bones.
My companion turns to me from his camera. ‘What did you say?’
‘It’s Latin,’ I continue. ‘Momento mori was a popular theme in baroque art. Skulls, bones, droopy and faded flowers in a cracked vase, extinguished candles, stopped clocks—all these symbols prevailed in still life’s painting those days. And this…’ I make a wide gesture to the vaulted ceiling. ‘This chapel is the biggest example of momento mori.’
‘I wouldn’t like the idea of my body being exhumed and my bones put on show, even for the sake of art.’
My companion has got a point here. The ossuary contains the skeletons of between forty and seventy thousands people, whose bones have been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel.
Baroque morality, its vision, its perception of life and death, its aesthetic were so different from ours in the 21st century and yet… This place has made me question my perception of life, death, and art. What are we able to sacrifice for it and to what point? Can we call it art at all? Or should we condemn the ossuary together with its creepy style? Maybe even destroy it and rebury the remains of those who die of the plague and sacrificed their lives in endless wars?
Whatever the answer is, this place is more than just a building, a chapel, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a work of art. It’s a reminder to all of us how horrific death can be, but how elaborate and unpredictable art can reintroduce it.