Ossuaries are buildings or containers where human skeletal remains are kept as way to reduce the space needed to store human remains. They are typically used in locales that need to re-use burial plots because space for graveyards is very limited. Some ossuaries stack human remains on shelves and others, like Sedlec Ossuary, use the skeletal remains to create elaborate sculptures.
The Sedlec Ossuary, near Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic, contains the bones of between 40,000 and 70,000 people and is one of the most visited tourist sites in the country. In the late 19th century, a wood carver named František Rint used human bones to build intricate sculptures like monstraces, a coat of arms, and crosses. Probably the most famous of his skeletal art is a giant human bone chandelier. The Sedlec human bone chandelier is rumored to contain at least one of every bone in the human body and is about eight feet high.
The human bone chandelier at Sedlec isn’t the only one and wasn’t even the first. Ossuaries in Italy were building bone chandeliers as early as the 16th century.
The Crypt at Santa Maria dell’Orazione et Morte
The church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione et Morte in Rome was built in 1576 as the headquarters for the Society of a Good Death, a confraternity dedicated to burying the poor. According to National Geographic, an estimated 8000 bodies were buried in the church’s underground crypt over a 300 year period.
The church has chapels with beautiful frescos and room decorated with human bones. Off of the church’s main altar there is a door that leads to a room that has a cross and candelabras made with human bones. There are also multiple human bone chandeliers in this room made out of skullcaps (calvaria), vertebrae, and sacra.
The Crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione
A Capuchin order of monks constructed a monastery and crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome between 1626 and 1631. When the building was completed, Cardinal Antonio Barberini, who was also a Capuchin monk, ordered the bodies of hundreds of Capuchin monks to be brought from the old friary to the new crypt in Rome. Between the 17th and 19th centuries the bones an estimated 4000 Capuchin friars were interred in the dimly-lit crypt below the monastery of Santa Maria della Concezione.
The bones of the monks were used to create elaborate designs on the walls and ceilings of five crypt rooms. Mummified, be-robed monks are also displayed standing up and laying down in skull-lined recesses. Long bones and vertebrae were used to create human bone chandeliers that hung from the crypt rooms.
There are vintage postcards of the chandeliers in the crypts. A color picture of one of the chandelier can be see here.
Cabaret du Néant
When the Cabaret du Néant (or Cabaret of Nothingness) opened in the early 1890’s it was known as the Cabaret of Death. Tt was eventually renamed to make it more appealing to locals and tourists. The Cabaret du Néant was located in the infamous Montmartre neighborhood of Paris near heaven and hell themed attractions called the Cabaret of the Sky (Cabaret du Ciel) and Cabaret of the Inferno (Cabaret l’Enfer).
In the tavern room of the Cabaret du Néant people sat at coffins that doubled as tables, and ordered drinks named after poisons and diseases. It was here that a human bone chandelier, made out of skulls and long bones, hung over the heads of patrons.
The Cabaret du Néant was incredibly popular and inspired similar attractions in the U.S. It closed sometime during WWII.
I’m sure this isn’t even a complete list. If there is one that I failed to mention please let me know.
Categories: Art and Ephemera, History
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