St James Ossuary
A remarkable set of underground chambers in Brno
that are filled with bones and skulls of some 50,000 people, some artfully arranged, others just in heaps, plus a few other objects such as antique coffins and a couple of sculptures. This is said to be the second largest ossuary in Europe after the Paris Catacombs
in terms of the number of deceased, and though much smaller in area space than its more famous French counterpart, it is an impressive sight to behold.
More background info:
The ossuary has a remarkable history, in particular the fact that for much of its existence it was totally obscure and forgotten! The first St James Church (or St Jacob, sv. Jakuba in Czech) at this location goes back to sometime in the 16th century. As was common practice back then, there was a cemetery adjacent to the church. These small plots usually soon filled up, so older bones and remains had to be collected and relocated (cf. Sedlec Ossuary
!). For this purpose, so it is now assumed, vaults were constructed in the 17th century underneath the church for storage of those old bones. Owing to diseases such as cholera and the plague, as well as through the ravages of the Thirty Years War and a Swedish
siege, these caverns also soon filled up. And so additional vaults were constructed underneath the cemetery. A further expansion must have been planned but given up, as evidenced by an extra connecting tunnel that abruptly ends after a couple of dozen yards without leading anywhere.
In 1784, reforms introduced in the reign of Austrian
emperor Joseph II, outlawed burials within the city in parish cemeteries – for health reasons, all burials were now to be carried out in plots of land outside the city. The old church cemetery was cleared and all the remains dumped in the underground chambers for a final time.
With it no longer being required, the access staircase to the ossuary chambers from the church’s nave were covered and sealed off by a stone slab. And over the years the very existence of these bone-filled vaults was forgotten.
Hence it came as no small surprise when in 2001 they were rediscovered by chance during a planning survey for the renovation of the square outside the church. The discovery opened up the chance for archaeological and forensic investigations; and as it was deemed unsafe for the nearby busy road to leave the chambers as they were, it was decided to stabilize and refurbish them.
Bones and skulls were cleaned and rearranged in the artistic manner we now see again – while one section was left in the state it was found in. Some old coffins discovered here too were also refurbished and put on display in the vaults.
After the renovation work was completed, the ossuary was opened to the public in 2012 and has become another rather morbid but fascinating tourist attraction in Brno
’s underground portfolio.
What there is to see: The entrance to the ossuary is outside the church it is associated with and marked by a big concrete/stone structure. Like a section of a thick wall. There’s a brief information panel that states the essentials about the place. Stairs next to the concrete wall lead down to a steel door. Behind this is the purpose-built entrance hall with the ticket desk and a few artefacts on display. These include some bones and skulls in glass cabinets. Apparently these had been the object of archaeological investigations. Three large text panels in Czech and (slightly flawed) English provide more in-depth historical information about St James Church, the former cemetery and the discovery of the ossuary.
Through a very low door and archway you then enter the original brick vaults of the ossuary. Inside, immediately to the right, is a first charnel chamber with bones and skulls piled to the ceiling, dimly lit by reddish lights set into the floor. There’s also piped background music (apparently specially provided by a local composer). In the centre between two walls of bones is some sculptural artwork.
Parallel to the first chamber, a narrow corridor goes down a gentle incline and ends at a smaller chamber. This is filled entirely with skulls, some polished white, others with yellow and reddish colouration – the latter apparently a sign of diseases like cholera or the plague.
Back at the main passageway you pass yet more walls of bones, some old tombstones and more artwork and eventually get to the main chamber. You are now directly underneath St James’ Church. Another wall of bones and skulls (and yet more sculptural artwork) is to the left. In the centre is a thick column made of bones and skulls, and at the far end a large glass panel holds back a mass of heaped bones and skulls in another side chamber. This is how the human remains were found when the ossuary was rediscovered. It was decided to leave one part in that messy state – perhaps so that visitors can even better appreciate the renovation work that has gone into the rest of this place.
The right-hand side of the main chamber has displays of antique coffins on either side of yet another wall of bones. The painted lids have been restored and are displayed attached to the wall above the main parts of the coffins, which are now sealed by a glass panel so you can see the skeletal remains inside.
That is more or less it. It’s quite atmospheric, especially when you don’t have to share the space with other visitors – so it pays off to linger a while and wait for others to leave rather than hurrying along with them (most other visitors I encountered spent much less time in there).
All in all, it may not be quantitatively all that much that you get to see for the admission price you paid, but it’s extremely rewarding for the dark atmosphere and morbid aesthetics. Recommended.
in the Old Town of Brno
, on the south-western corner of the square that St James Church sits in, by Rašinova Street.
Access and costs: Easy to locate; a bit expensive, but not excessively so.
Details: The stone slab in the square outside St James Church marks the entrance fairly well, and there’s also an info panel above ground. Down the stairs and through a steel door you reach the ticket desk.
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: 140 CZK, students, seniors and children under 15 pay half.
Still photography is allowed for free, but for the use of camcorders, an extra charge of 50 CZK is levied.
Combination tickets are on offer, at a small discount, with two other underground Brno sights: the labyrinth underneath the Vegetable Market Square (see under Brno
) and/or the Mint Master’s Cellar.
Time required: not long, maybe 15 to 20 minutes max.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Fewer in numbers of the dead, but even grimmer to look at are the semi-mummified bodies of the Capuchin Crypt
in the south of Brno’s Old Town, less than a ten-minute walk from the St James Ossuary. If you liked the ossuary, those Capuchin bodies will impress you even more.
See also under Brno
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The church above the ossuary, St James in English, but Kostel sv. Jakuba in Czech, may also be worth a look. I didn’t spot it myself, but I read that there allegedly is also a “naughty” statue above one of the windows of a person with exposed buttocks!
Being so centrally located, the ossuary is near most of the main attractions of Brno
- St James Ossuary 01 - narrow corridor
- St James Ossuary 02 - side chamber
- St James Ossuary 03 - polished skulls
- St James Ossuary 04 - another side chapber, with artwork
- St James Ossuary 05 - wall of bones closer up
- St James Ossuary 06 - another wall of bones, and more artwork
- St James Ossuary 07 - looking towards the main chamber
- St James Ossuary 08 - in the main chamber
- St James Ossuary 09 - form the other side
- St James Ossuary 10 - beyond the glass barrier
- St James Ossuary 11 - in a glass coffin
- St James Ossuary 12 - stack of skulls
- St James Ossuary 13 - hollow stare
- St James Ossuary 14 - jawless
- St James Ossuary 15 - badly battered skulls behind glass by the entrance
- St James Ossuary 16 - St James church