Ossuary underneath the Church of St. James in Brno: Europe’s second largest ossuary
One of the most popular destinations for tourists in Czech Republic who venture outside Prague is the town of Kutna Hora, famous for its ossuary, in which thousands of human bones are arranged into various shapes, including a chandelier and a coat of arms. However, also in the Moravian capital Brno is possible enjoy a similar macabre place that is worth visiting.
This is Europe’s second largest ossuary, it wasn’t discovered until 2001 and opened to the public for the first time in June of 2012.
Before doing renovation or new construction in the town of Brno, it is standard practice to do a preliminary archeological dig. However, what they found under Jakubske namesti, in english “St. James’ Square” was a surprise to everybody.
About 50,000 skeletons were recoverd under the square into a medieval charnel. The bones were once piled in neat rows, but at some point water and mud had flooded the gigantic underground ossuary, mixing the thousands of bones.
The bones, thought to be from the 17th and 18th centuries, are believed to have been dug up from an old cemetery to make space for more burials, as is the case with most of the ossuaries and catacombs in Europe, or as in the case of Kutna Hora, a graveyard that had been closed.
In fact, a cemetery adjacent to the Church of St. James had existed on the present-day Jakubské náměstí in the 13th century. And just like other cemeteries, it had been established within the city’s walls, which is the reason because its subsequent expansion, even if needed, was impossible. Its capacity soon proved insufficient due the growing city, so new burial methods had to be introduced: from 10 to 12 years after the funeral the grave of the deceased had to be opened and remains removed, to make room for a new deceased, and the contents of the graves were stored in special underground ossuaries.
A three-room crypt was probably built for this purpose right underneath the floor of the church in the 17th century. However, the church cemetery was closed in 1784 and all the remains were moved to the crypt, the wall of the cemetery was torn down and the area around the church was paved. Eventually the ossuary fell into oblivion.
It is the sheer amount of skulls, bones and skeletons here, second only to the Catacombs in Paris, that make the Brno ossuary especially interesting. Anthropological analyses prove that these remains belong to victims of medieval plague and cholera epidemics, Thirty Years’ War battles and Swedish siege. Many of the people died of various diseases which can be seen in the coloration of the bones themselves. All the bones are tinted yellow, having never been exposed to sunlight, and the extra-yellow ones likely indicate death from cholera, while the owners of the red-tinted bones probably died from the plague.