One of the main reasons why I had considered Prague as a destination to visit (on further research, I realised there were so many more reasons!), is the Sedlac Ossuary.
Back in 2010 for my final project at University I created a triptych of photographs titled "VANITAS VANITATUM OMNIA VANITAS", inspired by the nature of photography as momento mori and the Vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries. As I was researching this, I came across the Sedlac Ossuary and mentally filed it away under "places I must go". Funnily enough, the majority of the sights I saw in Prague would have been very relevant to this project!
“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” - Susan Sontag
The ossuary is actually in Sedlec, an hour out of Prague by train, and we almost didn't go. Estimated to contain the remains of 40,000 to 70,000 people, the chapel was built in around 1400, but it's history began long before. In 1278 the cemetery became THE place to be buried, following the abbot of the monastery returning from the holy land of Golgotha with a small amount of earth, which was sprinkled on the site. Due to the Black Death and the Hussite Wars the cemetery had to be greatly enlarged. A church with a lower chapel was built as an ossuary to house the exhumed skeletons in order to make room for new burials.
After 1511 the gristly task of exhuming and stacking bones was given to a half-blind monk, although we don't know how it looked under his... err.. half-blind responsibility. It was only in 1870 when the grounds were under the control of the Schwarzenberg family that they hired a woodcarver (and evidently creative fellow) František Rint to rearrange the bones. The guy even signed his name in bones near the doorway!
It was certainly an interesting experience, and I understand the importance of tourism to keep such places in good condition.... however.... a big, big disappointment was the conduct of the many people that streamed in and out of the place in the hour or so that we were there. Despite being surrounded by the dead there was such a horrendous lack of respect from people of all ages and nationalities, including taking selfies in front of the skulls and posing in a "scary" way. Nobody was taking any care to speak in hushed tones, despite the signs for silence, and the fact that there was a small altar at the back of the room for prayer.
I knew that there would be tourists there, due to the season, but I felt like I would have preferred to wait for longer outside in order to go in in smaller groups of people, rather than a slightly chaotic till point herding people in after they'd bought their tacky key chains.
The fact that people are now so unconnected to reality, even when there are REAL skeletons within their reach, is quite shocking. How you can be in that place and not only not reflect on mortality but to take selfies and joke around, is worrying. It's like the douche-bags at gigs who watch through their phone (or, god forbid AN iPAD), not enjoying the moment because they are too busy taking a photo to prove they had this really fun moment. If someone is constantly taking selfies (in order to remain relevant? constant? proof of living?), that person is likely to be unbalanced (and not in a quirky-cool way).
Regardless, this is still a constant source of inspiration to me, and I'm very honoured that I had the chance to visit!
The Death Mask of a saint lying in the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady (near to the ossuary)