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Kutna Hora UNESCO site and a macabre church

Kutna Hora, a small city east of Prague, contains an entire historical quarter that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, more correctly called “Kutná Hora: Historical Town Centre with the Church of St Barbara and the Cathedral of Our Lady at Sedlec.” The old town maintains its original medieval layout, established at a time when the town prospered based on income from silver mining. Most houses in the old center still keep their medieval look on the inside, but with facades that reflect prosperity in Gothic and/or Baroque form.

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Kutna Hora UNESCO site isn’t just about a pretty old town, though. The UNESCO designation, as its UNESCO title indicates, particularly focuses on two churches: St. Barbara’s and Our Lady at Sedlec.

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Text: Kutna Hora UNESCO site and a church full of bones
Image: A very ornate baroque altarpiece: corinthian columns on both sides, gold-painted, with cherubs along the top.

St. Barbara’s Cathedral

St. Barbara’s is an ornate late-Gothic cathedral, started in the 14th century but not actually finished for another 500 years. Its size and expense testify to the profitability of the silver-mining industry. It is included in the UNESCO designation because of its influence on the architecture of central Europe.

The side of the church shows gothic windows and a row of flying buttresses: 9 are visible in this photo. the roof has three pointed towers. Part of the Kutna Hora UNESCO site.
This side view of St. Barbara’s Cathedral clearly shows the late Gothic influences on the architecture, flying buttresses and all.

Some really over-the-top Baroque pieces loom in several spots inside the church.

Looking down a side aisle of the church, stone columns on each side and a gothic arch above. The altarpiece is baroque, with three stepped levels, columns on the sides of each level. A painting of saints set into the middle of each level with an ornately carved frame around each one. Three people stand with their backs to the camera, looking up at the altar. Their heads don't reach even to the bottom of the first level. part of the Kutna Hora UNESCO designation.
A massive Baroque altar in the side aisle of St. Barbara’s Cathedral, part of the Kutna Hora UNESCO site.

At the same time, a number of earlier late-Gothic frescoes have been preserved. Some are religious figures, but most of them illustrate the life of this mining town.

The figure on the left has green tights on and a whitish shirt and curly hair hanging out from under a hat. He is sitting on a low stool and raising a hammer up high to his head using both hands. Between his legs in front of him is a rock or similar where he is, presumably, preparing to hammer something. A person sits opposite him on the ground, red tights and a whitish robe. He holds something on the stone thing between them.
The frescoes inside St. Barbara date to the late Gothic period and portray townspeople in the silver industry.

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The Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady and St. John the Baptist

Originally built as part of a Cistercian monastery in the 12th century, this cathedral burnt down during the Hussite Wars in the 15th century.

The building is lined with windows with gothic arches at the top. the lower row of about 10 windows which are smaller windows than the ones in the upper row. All in brownish stone with a red roof.
The exterior of the Church of Our Lady, part of UNESCO site, appears distinctly late-gothic. The inside, however, is much more baroque.

It was rebuilt in the early 18th century. The restoration was designed in a “Gothic Baroque” style by Jan Blazej Santini, the same person who designed the Pilgrimage Church of St. John of Nepomuk. Its inclusion in the UNESCO designation is also about influence: its influence on Baroque architecture in central Europe.

A very ornate baroque altarpiece: corinthian columns on both sides, gold-painted, with cherubs along the top and full-size angel statues on each side.
a Baroque altarpiece in the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady in Kutná Hora

The Cathedral of Our Lady is not itself within the UNESCO boundaries. Instead, it is marked as being inside a “buffer zone” around the old city.

If you decide to visit Kutna Hora old town and these two UNESCO churches, there’s one more stop you should make. Not far from the Church of Our Lady is another church that’s far more famous than either of the UNESCO churches: Sedlec Ossuary, more commonly known as the Bone Church.

The Bone Church

The Bone Church is not actually part of the UNESCO site. Like the Cathedral of Our Lady, it was damaged in the Hussite Wars, and was restored and redesigned by the same Santini. Many of the local victims of those wars used to be buried here, along with plague victims from a century earlier. Later the cemetery was closed and the bones removed.

pine trees in the foreground. Behind, a small church with gothic arched windwos and two towers.
A view of the Bone Church through the trees.

The Bone Church brings in the tourists because in 1511, a half-blind monk took these bones and started building massive pyramids with them. Or it might have been Santini who made the bone pyramids: different sources tell different stories.

The bones are closely packed into a tall pyramid shape. An opening in the middle seems to be a small tunnel between the packed bones. Along the level of the tunnel is a line of skulls, with some also inside the tunnel entrance. It looks as if they are processing out of the pyramid. The whole thing is behind a wire mesh fence.
One of the bone pyramids in the Bone Church in Kutná Hora.

In the 19th century, a local woodcarver with an artistic bent started making the many “artworks” now on display in the church. Bones are everywhere. Linked together somehow, they festoon the arches, the chandeliers, and pretty much everything else, in some macabre imitation of party streamers. It’s unclear how many people all of these bones add up to: somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000.

The chandelier behind isn't very focused, but rows of large straight bones (arms or leg bones?) hand down in a row. The nearer figure is in focus and is vertical, with skulls one above the other. Each skull has a metal bracket holding it on the stand, and appears to have a large straight bone in its mouth, i.e. under it.
In this photo from inside the Bone Church in Kutná Hora, you can see a stand displaying skulls and other bones and, behind it, a massive chandelier made of bones.

As you can imagine, it’s a pretty creepy place. I presume that the intention was memento mori: to get churchgoers to consider the fact that they will die. I suspect, though, that most visitors are more focused on the sheer craziness of creating decorations from human bones.

The wall has an array of bones hanging on it, forming the shape of a cross with bones and skulls and a box around the cross, also made of straight bones and skulls. Piles of bones stand in each corner of the room made of skulls, straight bones and what may be hip bones. Above the bone cross is a window opening into the main room of the church. The arch of the window is lined with a chain of straight bones mixed with skulls.
Stepping inside the Bone Church, visitors are greeted by this sight.

Visiting Kutna Hora UNESCO site

Kutna Hora is about an hour away from Prague by train. The easiest way to visit, though, would be with a tour, including transportation and a guide.

St. Barbara’s Cathedral: Barborská Street. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-16:00 in November-February; daily 10:00-17:00 in March and October; daily 9:00-18:00 in April-September; . Admission: 120 CZK (about €4.50 or $5.25). Website.

Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady at Sedlac: U Zastávky 280, Sedlec. Open daily October-March 10:00-16:00 (Sunday 11:00-16:00); April-September 10:00-18:00 (Sunday 11:00-18:00). Admission: 50 CZK (€2 or $2.25). Website.

The Bone Church: Open daily in October-March 10:00-16:00, April-September 10:00-18:00. Admission: 90 CZK (about €3.50 or $4). Note: It is no longer permitted to take photos in the church without applying ahead of time. Website.

Where to stay: I’d suggest at least one night’s stay, so you can wander the old town as well as visit the churches. Search booking.com to find a hotel to suit your needs.

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Text: Kutna Hora UNESCO site and a bone church
Image: the stand with skulls appearing to have long bones in their mouths.

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