The Moravian capital of Brno, Czech Republic’s second largest city, has much to offer those looking for a break from Prague. Their biggest attractions are down under. There is a has a thriving underground network of crypts, museums, and even a hotel, showcasing bones, Cold War mementos, and torture devices.
This is a three-part story. Read part 2: The Labyrinth underneath the Vegetable Market.
Church of St. James Ossuary
It is the second-largest ossuary in Europe, after Paris. Yet, as I tour the crypt beneath the Church of St James, I’m underwhelmed. The entire place is about 100 metres in length, with just a main chamber and two side passages.
Then, I take a closer look at the walls and the pillars. They’re made up of the remains of 50,000 people – skulls bones, tinted yellow because of lack of exposure to sunlight. They stare at me, hollow-eyed and un-moving.
In the central chamber, I come across the creepiest chapel – it has a life-size cross and pulpit and ‘walls’ made of bones; in the far corner is a small stained glass mural. Nearby are two glass coffins – one has the skeleton of a grown man, and the other, the bones of a 13-year-old child.
There are glass cases and thin railings shielding the bones but, they’re well within reach. Around me, many are surreptitiously touching them. The thought of disturbing the tightly packed bones and have them fall on my head is enough to turn me away. At the end of one passage, is a pyramid of just skulls, some of which still have decayed teeth in them, making it seem like they’re grinning at me.
A few modern sculptures, in black, provide visual relief, including a statue of a guardian angel. The other relief is tonal – somber music composed especially for the especially for the ossuary, streams over the speakers.
The tour is self-guided. I refer to a pamphlet and elsewhere, displays in Czech and English. The sheer volume of the bones does most of the talking. The original crypt was built in the 17th century to accommodate the remains from the cemetery of the church of St James. The initial three rooms filled up quickly and had to be expanded to accommodate more bones. These were victims of the biggest serial killers of the time: plague, cholera, the Thirty Years’ War and the Swedish siege of Brno. Once the ossuary was full, it was covered up and lay in oblivion for 200 years. It was discovered in 2001 as part of a land survey. Researchers spent a decade gathering the remains, cleaning them and rearranging them back. The ossuary opened to the public in 2012.
It’s not just all bones. Along the passages are tombstones, from the original graves. At the entrance is a mini exhibition, showing old photos of the church and cemetery.
My tour has taken me just 20 minutes but, I’m glad to leave. As I walk out, I silently say the Latin prayer inscribed on the marble wall outside: Eternal rest grant unto them….
The ossuary is located at Jakubské náměstí; it is closed on Monday; 9.30 am to 6 pm (Tuesday to Sunday). Cost 70 Kč to 140 Kč.
These wonderful photos are courtesy Michal Růžička, TIC Brno