Gardens of the Dead
Words by Steven Adams
Images by Ottavia Casagrande
Steven Adams takes a tour of one of the most fabulous and extraordinary burial grounds in Europe, the Sedlec Ossuary. This artistic collection of bones is an extraordinary 19th-century display of creativity and an opportunity to come face to face with a literal memento mori.
An ossuary is a reliquary or site for bones, often being used when burial space is scarce or highly sought after. These are found throughout the world and most certainly across Europe, including the famed Catacombs of Paris and Rome. There are even modern ossuaries in current use. One can consider these “gardens of the dead”, with the remains as inverted blossoms – a counterpoint to life above ground.
One of the most famous of these “gardens” is the Czech Republic’s Sedlec Ossuary whose fame is due in no small part to the collision of the elegant and macabre; history, faith and worldly power; spirituality and simple practicality, all in one extraordinary location.
Although the Sedlec Ossuary was not created until the late 19th century, the fascinating story begins in 1278 when Henry, the Abbot of the Cistercian Monastery was sent to the Holy Land by King Otakar of Bohemia, whose state at that time was one of the most powerful in the Holy Roman Empire. Henry returned with a small amount of earth he had removed from Calvary, the hill outside of Jerusalem where Jesus was reputed to have been crucified. Henry sprinkled the soil over the Abbey’s cemetery grounds, and with this simple act, brought glory to King Otakar and made Sedlec one of the most sought-after burial sites in Central Europe for centuries to come.
During the Plague years of the 14th century, nearly 30,000 bodies were buried on the site with the continuing Crusades bringing in 10,000 more. Burials continued until, in the 15th Century, construction began on a Gothic church on the site of the cemetery and the bones were moved and stacked in pyramids beneath the new construction under the care of a blind monk.
These bones remained as they were until the late 19th century when the powerful aristocratic Schwarzenberg family hired a local woodcarver named Frantisek Rint to find a creative way to honor the remains of the dead.
Rint rose to the occasion and made his artistic mark, filling the church with garlands of bleached and carved bones in ways that almost resemble lace. He artfully arranged skulls, the Schwarzenberg family crest in bones and four stunning bone chandeliers which allow one to simultaneously ponder beauty, faith and the fleeting nature of life itself. This indoor garden of the dead is a true memento mori, a monument to the deceased, an unbroken link to centuries of history and to the power of the House of Schwarzenberg whose descendants remain influential to this day.
Cabana Magazine N14
Covers by Clarence House for Fabricut, November 2020.
This issue is the ideal armchair traveller's companion for the modern day. With current restrictions in travel, escape into the world of Cabana from the comfort of your own home and immerse yourself in the extensive portfolios on Venice and Hyderabad. Centuries of styles blend magically in Venice, captured by Antonio Monfreda, and through the lens of Markus Luscombe-Whyte, Hyderabad radiates the charm of a bygone era. Other stories include the Murlo Estate in the Umbrian countryside by Guido Taroni, Villa Imperiale of Pesaro by Ashley Hicks, and one of Tangier’s most beautiful houses captured by Miguel Flores-Vianna, amongst others.
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