There are infinite ways to communicate .. some .. better than others. Today, the average person will say 17,520 words to 7.4 other individuals .. yet change the language, one border to the next, and we are hopeless .. stumbling to explain the simplest of concepts .. “I want” .. “I am” .. “I love”. In the moment we’re born, we’re drawn to form a union with others .. an abiding drive to connect .. to love .. to belong. In a perfect union .. we find the strength we cannot find within ourselves .. but the strength of the union cannot be known .. until it is tested.
From the smallest ameba, to the grandest of galaxies, we define ourselves by our borders .. our boundaries. I am me .. therefore I am not you. We are safe within our territory .. but borders can be places of instability .. of danger. Cold fronts collide with warm .. dynamic energy explodes .. and yet, it’s at the edges .. the frontiers between us .. where ideas are exchanged .. where knowledge is gained. I am me .. but I must push past my borders .. find effort to truly know you.
We cross borders .. explore new frontiers .. frontiers of the heart .. frontiers of the soul .. and if we’re lucky, we come home again .. having learned great lessons about our shared destiny. For the purpose of our travels .. both inward and outward .. is not merely to see the unseen .. but to bring those visions home .. to share with those we love. As I shared in my last “adventure” regarding my lifelong desire to experience Europe .. it truly goes much deeper than just that. When I stepped into “Bohemia” .. I stepped outside myself .. and into centuries past.
Physicists will tell you that time does not exist .. that it is a human construct. Einstein believed in timelessness .. he believed that all of time existed at once .. past .. present .. future. Everyone we ever knew .. and everything we’ll ever be .. is with us in this moment. If this is true .. then all moments are equally real and accessible to us .. we just have to know how. When I “travel” .. from the American West to the castles and cathedrals of Medieval Europe .. the emotions I experience are “real” .. and I can see through the eyes of a Native American Indian or a peasant struggling to survive the Dark Ages. The traumatic emotions that brought me real tears within the sordid confines of the Nazi concentration camp at Terazín were as “real” as the fear and desperation streaming down the face of a mother losing her children at Wounded Knee.
Our common denominator is our emotions .. so as I share some of the places that touched me to the core .. I can only hope I do justice in conveying those moments in “time” that photos can only begin to describe .. yet, by no means, ever capture the true essence of “being there”. My hardest chore is deciding where to begin .. and how much “truth” I can actually share.
An Ossuary is defined as “a container or room into which the bones of dead people are placed”. The Sedlec Ossuary is a small Roman Catholic chapel, located beneath the Cemetery Chruch of All Saints in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic. It’s a well-known “destination ride”, and is among the most visited tourist attractions in all of CZ, receiving over 200,000 visitors per year. It is affectionately known as “the Bone Church” .. containing the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, whose bones have been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel.
The day we left for Kutná Hora, not a hint was given as to what I was about to experience that day, nor the amount of Bohemian history I would soon consume. The surroundings of Kutná Hora were settled in the 10th century, as evidenced by the very old and originally Romanesque temples in neighboring villages. A Cistercian monastery was founded and the first twelve monks came from the Frankish abbey of Waldsassen in 1142. After the discovery of the local silver deposits, the monastery soon became the economic and cultural centre of the area. A new cathedral was constructed between 1280 and 1320, and the obligations of the parish also included burying the dead.
In 1278 King Otakar II, of Bohemia, sent the abbot of Sedlec on a diplomatic mission to the Holy Land. When leaving Jerusalem, the abbot took a handful of earth from Golgotha, which he sprinkled over the cemetery of Sedlec monastery upon his return. The earth in the cemetery thus became part of the Holy Land and consequently became famous, both in Bohemia and also throughout Central Europe. Many wealthy people desired to be buried there. The burial ground was enlarged during the epidemic of plague in the 14th century, as over 30,000 more people were buried there in 1318. The Hussite wars in the first quarter of the 15th century brought thousands of more bodies to be buried, and many bones from the graves were stacked up around the chapel. In 1421 the Ossuary was set on fire by the Hussites and subsequently destroyed.
The silver mines located on the property of the monastery provided the majority of funds to rebuild, but the significant work of key individuals is quite noteworthy. In 1511, a half-blind monk began stacking bones into pyramids. In 1661, the bone decorations were rearranged again, and the present form of the Chapel and Ossuary is the result of Baroque modifications carried out at the beginning of the 18th century by Jan Santini Aichl. The present arrangement of the bones and architectural style (called Baroque Gothic) dates from 1870 and is the work of a Czech woodcarver, Frantisek Rint, and two members of his family. His “bone signature” is on the wall of the chapel.
As I stepped through the main entrance and made my “donation” at the desk .. I was handed a one-page “English” version of the short history of the Ossuary. The display of skulls and bones grabbed my attention so much I didn’t even look at the yellow handout until some time later. As I walked down the huge stairway into the lower level, I was absolutely awestruck at the sight. A huge chandelier, consisting of every bone found in the human body, loomed over the center of the chamber. Everywhere I looked I saw sculptures, candelabras, huge chalices, and unique decorations made entirely from human bones. I was blown away!
In each corner of that lower chamber were huge pyramids of femur bones, strategically stacked without any single wire or attachment holding them in place. There was a tunnel within each pyramid so that lighting could be placed which gave each stack an “eeriness” beyond description. Skulls were lined in front of the pyramids .. as were they also strung across the ceilings and in other various forms of display. Probably the most dramatic presentations were the skulls from Hussite warriors, which showed the horrific modes of death only your imagination could devise. Obvious fatal injuries were arrowhead punctures, battle-ax crushings and holes chopped from the skull. In one case, the hole was about a three-inch square sliced from the top-rear of the head, which, upon closer inspection, one could see where “new” bone growth occurred over a period of time. Leaving the observer to wonder how in the world anyone could actually survive such an injury, let alone “live” with the brain-exposing wound long enough for it to try and mend itself. Unvelievable .. yet, I DO understand the resiliency of the human body and the punishment it can take!
One of the most interesting displays was the huge “coat of arms” replica of the Schwarzenbergs, made entirely of bone and probably over six feet in height. In 1784, when Josef II abolished the Sedlec Monastery, the Schwarzenbergs from Orlík purchased the monastery property. They had the Ossuary reconstructed in its present form. After Adolf of Schwarzenberg conquered the Hungarian fortification of Raab, reducing the power of the Turks for a long time, Emperor Rudolf II added the severed head of a Turk to his coat of arms, complete with a raven plucking the eyes out. Talk about “in your face!”
Traveling through the numerous villages on our way to Kutná Hora, I never imagined what would be at the end of that trail, I just knew it was one of Lucie’s many “surprises” .. and that was good enough for me. But as I first mentioned about crossing “boundaries” and “territories” .. of “seeing” and “learning” .. “communicating” when there are obvious language barriers .. sometimes the unspoken language says it all .. that is, if one takes the time to “ponder” .. to “contemplate” .. and attempt to put the many pieces of life’s puzzle together.
“Death” leaves us much to contemplate, especially if you’re a bit like myself and aren’t afraid to think “outside the box”. Yet, even with the “time” and “distance” separating us .. or the varying cultures that undoubtedly shore up the foundations of our core beliefs .. we can connect the dots which separate us .. eliminate the language barriers that “respect” and “appreciation” does NOT separate. When I “felt” the energy present within “the Bone Church” .. I imagined the difficult lives of those souls who came to reside there .. and I realized that the work done there is not an end in itself. For decades, it has reminded visitors of the limits of human life .. and the fact of death. This “fact” was intended to lead people to mutual harmonic coexistence .. to have respect for “life” and to become aware of our own responsibilities to the God within ourselves.
The Bone Church was built out of “respect” for those who died .. in whatever mannerism they left this realm of existence .. it was, and IS, a tribute to “life” .. to honor those who came before .. however short or long their “timespan” allowed. I felt no “morbidity” within the confines of that Ossuary .. I felt the love and sacrifice that each soul contributed to its purpose. And with that .. I leave you to your own assumptions and “contemplation”.
Until next time .. ride smart .. ride safe
and the Adventure continues …