Kutna Hora: Medieval Beauty and Bones, Flying Buttresses and Frescoes, Gothic Splendor and Gargoyles

 

Kutná Hora, Czech Republic

Have car – will travel!  And travel we did during our time in the Czech Republic, putting many kilometers on our can’t-lose-me-in-a-crowded-parking-lot, neon-green, rented Skoda during the week we had it.  As luck would have it, the little city of Kutná Hora, population around 20,000, was only an hour east of Prague and almost dead center in the heart of Bohemia, making it easy to heed the advice of several friends to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

 

cistern

The original silver mining settlement of Cuthna Antiqua, Old Kutna, was settled as early as the 10th century but its economic fortunes were tied to the establishment of the first Cistercian monastery in Bohemia, Sedlec Abbey, in the nearby village of Sedlec in 1142.  The combined riches of the silver mine on the monastery’s property and Old Kutna’s mines led to economic boom times.  In 1308, King Wenceslas II (aka King Václav II) established the Royal Mint in the city which produced the silver Prague groschen coins that were then the hard currency of Central Europe.  Considered the treasure-house of the medieval Kingdom of Bohemia and favored as a residence by several kings and the ultra-wealthy, boom town Kutná Hora rivalled only Prague in importance of enormous wealth, political influence and culture for several centuries.

 

 

According to one of the brochures we snagged at the tourist information center, there are more than 300 Gothic, Baroque and Classical buildings in the city and a walk around the historic center’s narrow and winding streets was a must-do introduction.  Much of the building took place in the 14th century and included a rich residential architecture of places fit for the royals, homes for the very wealthy and their lessors, churches, monuments and a couple of cathedrals reflecting the enormous wealth of city.  Over the years, many of Kutná Hora’s buildings were damaged or destroyed by fires and war but the continued income from the silver mines allowed for these to be reconstructed or replaced as needed.

 

Cathedral of Saint Barbara

 

The spires of the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Barbara, named after the patron saint of miners, dominate the skyline of Kutná Hora from a hill overlooking the city.  There’s really no way to describe this cathedral, whose construction began in 1388, as anything but magnificent.

 

 

Even those tourists who are “churched and cathedralled out” should find many things to appreciate in this over-the-top cathedral with its arches and vaults, flying buttresses and frescoes, multiple stained-glass windows, murals, sculptures, gargoyles and, not to be forgotten, a completely rebuilt and restored Baroque pipe organ from the 17th century.

 

17th century Baroque Pipe Organ

Financed by generations of local blue-blooded families whose fortunes depended both on the politics of the day and riches from the silver mines, the construction of the cathedral was an on-again-off again holy project that spanned several centuries until it was finally declared finished and consecrated in 1905.

 

 

Without a doubt, Kutná Hora is a jewel in the Czech Republic’s crown of historic cities. But, among all its charms, we highly suspect that its most popular tourist site might be the small Cemetery Church of All Saints.  Also called the Ossuary at Sedlec, it’s more simply known as the Bone Church of Kutná Hora. The Sedlec cemetery dates from the 12th century and because of a legend claiming it contained soil from the city of Jerusalem – and was thus a part of the Holy Land – became very popular in Central Europe as a last and eternal resting place.

 

 

Over the centuries, thousands were buried in the cemetery – upwards of 30,000 victims from the recurring plagues or “Black Death” and thousands more slain in the religious Hussite wars. The cemetery became extremely crowded and was closed in the 15th century. The remains of an estimated 40,000 people were exhumed from their not-so-final resting place and unceremoniously heaped inside and outside the underground chapel of the Church of All Saints. A century later, a half-blind monk stacked these bones up neatly into huge pyramids that lined the interior walls of the chapel and gave the faithful some room in the middle for worship. Over the next few hundred years, relics constructed of bone were arranged decoratively in the spirit of “memento mori” – the medieval practice of reflecting upon mortality.

 

 

However, the really bizarre (and endlessly, ghoulishly fascinating) attraction of the Bone Church was the interior decorating performed with a macabre panache by master builder, František Rint, in 1870.  After cleaning and bleaching the bones of the not-so newly departed, he created all sorts of fanciful decorations including an enormous chandelier that includes every bone in the body, a crucifix arrangement and a coat of arms in tribute to his employer … His work is even signed with a flourish in – what else?  bones!

 

 

As the centuries passed, Kutná Hora experienced its share of hard times. Repeated appearances of the plague, the religious Hussite Wars in the 15th Century, the flooding of its richest mine in 1546 and the destructive Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) all contributed to its decline.  By the 16th century the silver mines were producing less and less and were finally abandoned at the end of the 18th century.  Fortunately, time seems have treated the city kindly and its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 ensures that it will be a destination to explore and enjoy by people like us for (hopefully) many generations to come.

 

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

48 comments

  • The Bone Church is incredible…it gives a whole new meaning to the idea of recycling doesn’t it? Beautiful “bones” chandelier, I would love to visit this town 🙂

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  • Whoa!! How on earth did I miss the Bone Church. We’ve done a couple of posts on bones in church and relics, but man oh man, this church wins the award – hands down (pun intended). I haven’t heard of Kutna Hora, but after this post it’s on the list for sure. Lots of folks visit the Czech Republic and never leave Prague, which is a mistake that you guys are obviously not making. Great post and great series Anita. ~James

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    • Thanks James! We’re glad you’re enjoying our posts on the Czech Republic. There are so many things to do and see in the city of Prague itself that it’s not hard to imagine why the majority of visitors never leave the city. Since we had an apartment and almost a month to explore, we were lucky to have a chance to venture further afield and see many of the other small cities and villages. And you can bet that Kutna Hora was at the top of our list! As you can see from our pics, it’s well worth the visit and a place I know you and Terri would have a great time visiting. After all, who doesn’t want to visit a pile of moldering bones? HaHa!

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  • I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as beautifully disturbing as that bone cathedral. Positively haunting.

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    • We have to admit that all you have to say is “unusual and bizarre” and we’d be first in line to see it. The bone arrangements are strangely beautiful but we also liked the old idea of “memento mori.” Not that we want to be surrounded by reminders of death all the time, but it is good to keep in mind how fast our time can pass. Haunting indeed!

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  • The Bone Church is incredible. Can you imagine bleaching and arranging human bones for a living? The shield and the chandelier were very creative. I remember visiting a small bone church in the middle of Portugal. Beats me why I have such a fascination with cemeteries and bones, but thanks for indulging my morbid curiosity. Haha.

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    • Ha-Ha, Debbie – We also tried to imagine setting off each day to face the task of cleaning and arranging centuries-old bones! Evidently the practice of collecting and arranging bones crossed the Atlantic as we visited an ossuary in Lima, Peru a few years where a priest had also compiled some bone arrangements. And, since we share your same fascination with cemeteries and bones, we have the Chapel of Bones in Central Portugal (located in Evora) on our “Must See” list for sometime in the near future. Stay tuned!

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  • Wow! I will have to visit this place! It is so astonishing!

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  • We hadn’t heard of Kutna Hora, but it looks like an wonderful town to explore. The Gothic cathedrals are at the top of our list for evoking the wonder of the architectural prowess of the builders of that period. No matter how many you visit you can’t help but being drawn into the past when you enter and time just seems to slip away. The Bone Church is certainly bizarre but entirely fascinating!

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  • Pretty place isn’t it? When we went a few years ago we were surprised by this little known town.
    So what is you conclusion about this creative monk? According to the church the work “is not a celebration of death, but it symbolizes the equality of people in front of the throne of god”.
    I’ve told Lissette I’d prefer she not use my bones to make a barstool or nightlamp when I die. I honestly find the whole thing creepy.

    Interesting post!
    Frank (bbqboy)

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  • I always enjoy towns with lots of varied architecture. It looks as if, for such a small town, Kutná Hora has lots of interesting buildings to explore.

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    • We love visiting old towns with a variety of architecture too, Karen and would definitely recommend adding Kutna Hora to your list of must sees. Many of the buildings go back centuries and reflect several different building styles including some great examples of Gothic and Baroque. A great fun-fest of architectural eye-candy!

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  • Thank you for introducing me to a place I know nothing about. It looks like a place I would adore (well, maybe not that bone church, but the cathedral and the rest of town) and will have to figure out when to get there!

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    • You’re welcome! We have a lot of fun writing about our impressions of places we’ve visited and things we find interesting with other people who love travel. As for getting there, once you get to Prague there are many ways to Kutna Hora including tour groups, trains or even renting a car like we did. It’s definitely worth the time and effort!

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  • WOW. That Saint Barbara Cathedral truly is a wonder (those flying buttresses a most amazing feat of engineering, yes?). And the macabre decoratives of the “Bone Church” – purely incredible! Indeed, who knew? The tiny village of Kutná Hora would have such epic sights. So great that you have the proximity and the leisure to explore the more off-grid attractions of Europe.

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  • I think I’d enjoy Kutná Hora. The Cathedral of Saint Barbara does look magnificent, but the Bone Church sounds a bit creepy!

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    • We think you’d enjoy it also, Donna and would recommend it highly. The Bone Church may be the big draw for folks who like a bit of bizarre creepiness in their sightseeing but there two beautiful cathedrals and a few lovely churches to visit as well as some great traditional Czech foods to try at the many restaurants.And first or last, a wander about the old, cobbled streets is nice to do, too!

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  • Beautiful photos of one of our favorite Czech towns – made me eager to return!

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    • Thank you Anne. We have a lot of places that we’d love to return to but the Czech Republic tops our list! Kutna Hora is a lovely little town and we found several other small villages that were also unique and interesting. And not only is the Czech Republic beautiful, we found it to be amazingly inexpensive to travel in.

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  • Carolina Colborn

    This was fun. I was so engrossed in the story and the architecture you were describing when BOOM, the Bone Church grabbed all the fascination I had in my body. What a find, Anita!!! Another reason to visit the Czech Republic.

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    • That’s just the reaction we were hoping for Carol! For such a small town, there’s plenty to do and see in Kutna Hora. However, once you get to the Bone Church, it kind of goes over-the-top in the list of fascinating attractions. We fell in love with all things Czech and I can definitely recommend putting it on your “Must See” list, too!

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  • Maida Berenblatt

    I keep thinking that you cannot top the wondrous story of your last visit. Somehow you always manage to do just that. Thanks for this incredible trip. Keep well. Maida

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re so glad that you’re finding each story of the places we find while we’re traveling to be interesting. And Kutna Hora was truly a find! For us, writing about and sharing the places we visit doubles our fun and keeps us the learning all sorts of fascinating details. Wishing good health to you too, Maida!

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  • What a fascinating city, I would love to see this including the well known bone church…but so much history and beautiful architecture

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  • Really lovely churches…until I saw your photos of the Bone Church. Yikes! Interesting story but creeyp!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We always peek inside churches if they’re open and having two Cathedrals in such a small city was a bonus, although the Cathedral of St. Barbara really outshone everything else. For us, the Bone Church (and creepy is a definite attraction) was the initial reason we decided to visit Kutna Hora but we quickly found out it had a lot of other reasons to stay and explore!

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  • Pingback: Kutna Hora: Medieval Beauty and Bones, Flying Buttresses and Frescoes, Gothic Splendor and Gargoyles; Anita & Richard; No Particular Place To Go | All About World Heritage Sites

  • I’ll be passing through the Czech Republic during the summer; I think I may have to stop in Kutna Hora and, yes, I’ll check out that bone church as well!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Rachel, you are in for a serious treat! We loved almost everything about the Czech Republic and I hope you experience its magic as well. Kutna Hora’s Bone Church is really interesting and I have no doubt you’ll find lots of other fascinating place to visit. We left after a month feeling like our time went by way too fast and with a list of places that we still wanted to see!

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  • We took the train from Prague and made it a day trip. Absolutely loved the place. Great to walk around and explore. Thanks for the memories.

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  • Great post! Chilling in some regards!

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  • Kutna Hora looks so picturesque. The church is lovely. I think l would very much like to visit there. I’m trying to think if it was in Malta or Santiponce Spain that we saw a bizarre room like this with bones. Not quite at this level, but still freaky. Reading your words, l think Pillars of the Earth and l’m sure Ken Follett got all these ideas and history from places and stories like this. Master builders and all. I love it and can’t wait to visit this UNESCO site. Lovely pictures :-).

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    • You’re echoing our thoughts Kemkem as “Pillars of the Earth” definitely crossed our minds when we read about the Cathedral taking centuries to complete as well as some of the architectural innovations that were way ahead of their time. Despite not being religious types, we certainly seem to be drawn to Cathedrals and churches and it’s no wonder because the artistry and architecture are so often, over-the-top amazing. You’ll definitely love Kutna Hora and stay tuned, because we have a few other recommendations that we’ll be writing about too!

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  • Wonderful post you guys! This place definitely goes on the list! Well Prague and the Czech Republic are already on the list so Kutná Hora is an obvious addition. It’s a beautiful town. I’d heard of the bone church but not made a note of its location. And your right – the Barbara Cathedral is absolutely gorgeous!
    Alison

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    • Like so many other tourists, Kutna Hora’s Bone Church was the big draw to the little city but we were definitely glad we spent the day there as the Cathedral of St Barbara and several other churches were well worth the time spent. In fact, there’s so much to see that spending a night there might be something to consider when you visit, Alison. If we’d had a little more time (this is a common refrain!) I would have loved to visit a couple of other ossuaries around the country that we read about: the Brno Ossuary and the Schwartzenberg Tomb. Maybe it’s a macabre interest (we also love old cemeteries) but it’s interesting to see how death is treated by various cultures across the centuries. But, maybe a chandelier goes a little beyond the pale! 😁

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  • Ah… the Bone Church. Pretty sure there isn’t any other place like it in the world. It’s just incredible, isn’t it?! I remember standing in the fairly chilly church (we were there in March) and thinking, okay, this is fascinating in the day light, but no way would I want to be here at night. I kept asking myself if it was haunted, or if the souls were at peace because of the bizarre care of Rint.

    We made a day of it and took the train from Prague to Kutna Hora and it worked well as we easily walked from the train station to the bone church and in to the village. It was a moment in time for us – I actually said aloud, “We’re on a train riding across the landscape of the Czech Republic once part of the Soviet Union.” Moments like that blow my mind.

    So glad you made it to the little village with so much fascination!

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    • I know exactly what you mean Patti, when you do a kind of reality check and say, “We’re in a train traveling across the Czech Republic … ” because that kind of realization hits us occasionally whenever we’re in a place that we never dreamed we’d see! And thanks for recommending the Bone Church. Once we read your story and other articles about Kutna Hora, it was near the top of our list. We’d visited an ossuary in Lima, Peru a few years ago so were kind of prepared for the macabre but the Cemetery Church of All Saints took bizarre to a whole new level. It’s hard not to love the sheer creativity of the man who used the bones to create his decor but one really has to wonder about the artist himself, right?

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