Can you imagine? For centuries no one knew there were hundreds of bones and precious artwork hidden beneath this church in Switzerland!
The quiet streets of the village of Leuk reveal little of its history, but a walk inside its medieval structures is an interesting step into a mysterious past. Leuk is a small town in Switzerland’s Rhone Valley mostly known for the thermal spa to the north, but the town’s history dates back around a very, very long time ago. It seems that the first church was built around the 6th century out of a preexisting Roman building, and this was torn down and reconstructed several times before the gothic St. Stephan’s Church was erected in 1494.
In 1981 the church undertook a restoration project. So, the restorers pulled up the floorboards with the intention of building a basement community center, but soon found that would be impossible! A hidden cellar had been housing an about 3 meters-tall, 20-meters-long wall of skulls for centuries.
Every cubic metre contains about 400 skulls!
Furthermore, during archaeological excavation the very next year, 26 statues were discovered hidden beneath one meter of bones.
They were dated between the 13th and the 16th centuries, around the time the current church building was constructed.
The artworks found in the charnel house included a remarkable Pièta and a well-preserved Danse Macabre fresco, still on view in the charnel house. Its inscription reads: “What you are, we once were. What we are, you will become.”
It is a memento mori, a reminder that you must die!
No one is really sure why the charnel house is there, or why it was kept secret.
Some historians speculate that these many bones didn’t end up beneath the church via war, disease, famine or disaster, but rather there simply wasn’t enough space in the cemetery for them.
Some of the skulls have what appear to be bullet wounds, which may mean that they could be the skulls from the soldiers killed in the Battle of Pfyn in 1798, when the German-speaking communities of the Valais fought against the French, probably exhumed from the cemetery after it became overfull.
The rooms may have been concealed during the Reformation, to protect the skulls and statues from the fury of the iconoclasts.
However, the discovery enlivened the city!
In Leuk there were several medieval buildings in ruins and slated for demolition, and when the secret ossuary beneath St. Stephan’s was discovered, renewed interest in the old buildings increased.
The church restoration and discovery of the charnel house have encouraged residents to preserve the many faded patrician houses in the village, and to save the Episcopal Palace from ruin. They have now been restored, and serve as another draw to the historic little town!