Ossuaries & Charnels

Zdislavice, Czech Republic ossuary chapel (Kostnice)

Zdislavice, Czech Republic ossuary chapel (Kostnice)

Zdislavice, Czech Republic ossuary chapel (Kostnice)

This site is not detailed in the book, so I will say a little bit about it here. Its omission was due in part to the fact that it is a small and otherwise minor site, and despite efforts at communication, I was not able to get an affirmative response from the church to allow me to come photograph and research. Only much later did I actually have a chance to go there and take some photos. That being said, the site should not be discounted. The arrangements of the bones are sophisticated, and even though the chapel is not much larger than a walk in closet, shows similarities in style with both Santa Maria d. Concezione in Rome (skulls articulated with bones to resemble butterflies) and the Sedlec Ossuary (small bone encrusted pyramids). The similarities themselves are intriguing, because they imply that whoever designed it (there are scant records) was well aware of those two sites. Even more intriguing, however, is a placard on the altar (seen in the photo) which bears the date of 1772. This is an extremely early date for a charnel in Central or Eastern Europe to have been decorated in this fashion. The ossuary chapel in Czermna was known to have been decorated in 1776, and the current arrangement of the bones in Sedlec, despite the site’s immense fame, dates to only the second half of the nineteenth century. Without further records, it is hard to know what to make of the ossuary at Zdislavice. If the date is correct, and refers to the completion of the current decor, I would have to admit that my own chronology for the development of fully decorated charnels in Central and Eastern Europe is wrong, and must take into account Zdislavice as a seminal and influential site. There is another account of the site which mentions the date of the construction of the interior as 1810. Personally, I do not believe that either is the correct date for the décor as it exists today–if either were the case, I do not believe the site would have remained so anonymous, especially considering it would have to be considered an influence on the décor at Sedlec. I suspect that the 1772 refers simply to the foundation of an ossuary in this room (which borders the church, on an old cemetery grounds), and 1810 probably an alteration or rearrangement of it. The current state of decor was probably not completed until much later–after the fame of Sedlec, so in the late nineteenth or even early twentieth century. That chronology also has the benefit of allowing the decorator to have absorbed the influence of the Roman site second hand, through photos, rather than having traveled personally to Rome. Local histories, if they are to be trusted, shed an interesting light on the source of the bones here: as is typical, they came from a cemetery yard which had been around the church, but the burials here had been augmented by victims of the plague which were dumped in Zdislavice. It had apparently been common practice at one time to bring bodies of plague victims from local villages here and bury them anonymously in a mass pit. Because of the route followed by the body porters to Zdislavice, one of the local paths gained the nickname “Zombie Road.” The dumping of bodies here necessitated charneling, and it was the bones of these anonymous plague victims which were among the first to be disinterred.
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