The Ossuary as Memento Mori

Memento MoriMemento Mori by Bohdan Chlibec

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My husband Mason bought me this beautiful book at the Franz Kafka Bookstore on the Old Town Square in Prague. It’s listed on for $140, but let me tell you, this is one beautiful book!

Memento Mori focuses solely on the Sedlec ossuary outside of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic. In 44 plates, the book obsessively documents the Church of All Saints and the bone decor inside. Each photograph floats atop a deeply black mat and is faced by a stark white page, so your attention is focused again and again on the exquisite artistry with which Rint organized the dead.

The photographers were given over a year, using only natural light, to capture the images in these black and white photos. The long exposures required to shoot the dim ossuary give the bones — especially the skulls — a luminous quality. Often it seems that a spiritual glow infuses the images, radiating from the bones themselves or streaming in through the opaque windows. The photographs imply that this is a holy space.

The photographers were allowed access unavailable to your average tourist with a $2 photo pass. They slipped behind the iron grates fencing off the pyramids to reveal the cant of disintegrating geometry as the skulls rolled out of place. They climbed over the rail into the sacred alcove to shoot the monstrance lens to eye socket. They documented cobwebs and shattered skulls and the crumbling plaster of the walls, revealing the sadness and decay behind the breathtaking chandelier and chalice. Words are unnecessary when you view these photographs.

However, explanatory text is provided. First in Czech, then in English, finally in German, the essayists address the chronicle of the ossuary and debate the impact of its artistry. In his first essay, Mojmír Horyna details the history of the Cistercian order and discusses the artistic motifs of the ossuary design. He finds that the skull and crossbones is the most effective compositional element of the ossuary. In fact, garlands of skulls and crossbones do swoop across the groined ceiling of the church. However, Horyna claims that Rint’s “Romantic” decoration transformed the church into the empire of death triumphant, having stripped the “vanity of life of its beauty and joy.” I can’t disagree with him more. I found the ossuary almost indescribably beautiful. My confrontation with all those skulls left me feeling buoyed, full of joy that I am still alive. Perhaps there’s a large gap in our ages?

I suspect from his second essay (“Place of the Triumph of Death and of Hope in the Resurrection”), Horyna is a staunch Catholic, and perhaps a priest. He discusses briefly the 19th century slogans of praxis and will, defining the Romantic Movement as fascinated and horrified by death. He claims Rint “tuned” the ossuary “into the macabre tones of a hymn of death.” Proceeding onward, he claims that the modern pilgrim cannot possibly discover the ossuary in the manner in which it was intended. He’s pissed that the space is now a tourist attraction, to which modern visitors are drawn by curiosity. “Mass curiosity,” he writes, “operating under the slogan of demands for access to all facts, for the abolition of all secrets, and for the right to easy knowledge which, of necessity is superficial, leads to the banalisation of the world.” Whoa, buddy. Just because I didn’t grow up Catholic in Soviet Czechoslovakia does not mean that I cannot understand or appreciate what I’ve seen. In fact, I’m insulted by the insinuation that tourism, which is now funding renovation of the church, is evil in any way. Without my admission money, pal, your cultural icon would crumble to dust.

Probably, in Horyna’s opinion, those of you reading this review would not appreciate these spectacular photographs in a manner of which he would approve. I say, visit if you can. If you can’t, track this lovely book down.  Insulting text aside, it is very worth owning.

Amazon seems to be able to get you a copy here: Memento Mori

This review initially appeared in Morbid Curiosity #3.

Cemetery of the Week #38: the Sedlec Ossuary

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

2 responses to “The Ossuary as Memento Mori

  1. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #38: the Bone Chapel of Kutná Hora | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

  2. Pingback: Death’s Garden: So Shall You Be | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

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