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