Oh Ursula!

Last post from the infamous Ossuary trip!

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I’ve been back home for a week now but couldn’t keep up with the flood of post-worthy material while traveling–and I just cannot leave the ossuary trip behind without due recording of our last encounter with beautiful bones. The big oval-shaped route we took from Frankfurt , across Bavaria, over to the Czech Republic, with a day to dip our toes into Poland, looped back through northern-ish Germany and ended in culturally rich Cologne (Koln, as you’d say in Deutsch). We had the good fortune of meeting up with fellow artist and Cologne resident  Ulli Böhmelmann who stood patiently waiting for us outside the Basilica of St. Ursula as Hannah Verlin and I once again showed our muddlement with the map. (Cologne, like Boston, favors nonparallel streets which challenge any logic one tries to apply to the cause of getting from here to there)

These few pictures cannot do justice to what one encounters as one enters the side chapel (the Golden Kammer) of St. Ursula’s. The blue-gray night sky walls framed with arches which reach to a vaulted ceiling are completely covered with an impossible number of bones arranged in beautiful patterns and words.

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And just below the bones the room is ringed with wooden and silver reliquary busts.

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Between these, cloth-wrapped skulls peek out from windows in ornately carved and painted wood columns or gold reliquary boxes.

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To take in the full measure of this incredibly beautiful, incredibly poignant site one must digest the story of St Ursula and her eleven loyal virgin friends whose very bones adorn the walls and fill the reliquaries. (pay no attention to those pesky anthropologists who after careful analysis declared the bones to belong to a whole array of beings from newborns, toddlers  and–WHAAAT! Matiffs?!?!! Save yourself the trouble of verifying the martyrdom of Ursula story by looking it up on Wikipedia or elsewhere–there are so many confusing and conflicting accounts of Ursula that she was removed from the official “General Roman Calendar” of saints in 1969–Harrumph! And oh, let’s not quibble about the number of virgins which started as 11 in the 5th century telling and grew to 11,000 by the 9th century. Well, all this  has not hurt Ursula’s status in Cologne where she is still considered their patron saint.)


–and here is why:

As you can see from the above sculpture, Ursula was incredibly beautiful and was pursued by innumerable suitors (it probably didn’t hurt that she was also a princess). Ursula turned them down, one after the other, ’til one day a particularly aggressive, and oh dear, pagan prince declared that if Ursula would not agree to marry him he would see to it that Cologne was destroyed. Talk about pressure! Her father the king, who until this point had indulged Ursula, begged her to reconsider. She could see his point but still, being a pious Christian princess, felt a trip to consult with the pope was in order. She gathered her 11 best friends and off they sailed to Rome, a bold, bold move– a pilgrimage of WOMEN–unheard of!  While sailing down (or was it up?) the Rhine, their ship was attacked by Huns, whose leader, Attila, was also smitten by Ursula and asked her to marry him. She did not need further consultation on this one–the answer was NO and Attila’s response was swift and not surprising, given his bad reputation. Ursula and the eleven virgins (who also refused to couple with the Huns) were all beheaded. Attila declared that Cologne would be stormed and destroyed. But this is not the end of the story. That night every single Hun soldier had the SAME dream about Ursula. I cannot tell you what exactly she did in this dream, but it was enough to scare every soldier into disobeying Attila’s orders to torch Cologne. Cologne was saved!!! What I can’t understand is the papal problem with recognizing Ursula as a saint. 1969, the whole western world is pretty much going to pot and the Vatican decides now’s a good time to tighten up on sainthood requirements? Geez!

As I mentioned earlier, our visit to Cologne was greatly sweetened by the two days we spent with Ulli Böhmelmann who shepherded us here and there throughout her interesting and vibrant city, poking around the contemporary art galleries, design center,

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and, most lovely of all, a visit to her studio. Ulli will be coming to Boston to present at the Transcultural Exchange in February 2016 if you want to hear her speak about the sculpture project she did in Russia last year.

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Melnik Bouquet

I’m back home. Happy to see that our piles of snow melted in my absence. However, I’m not quite ready to put the bones behind me, and hopefully you’re not either since I have a couple more ossuaries to tell you about (what a relief to post from a desktop computer rather than pecking away on the phone.)


One of our last outings in the Czech Republic brought us to the small town of Melnik (spelled with various tick marks and accents over the vowels and pronounced as if you had a mouthful of honey),

IMG_1908   IMG_1951where the 10th – 11th century cliff-side church of St. Peter and St. Paul’s sits atop a densely packed, little-visited ossuary holding the bones of 10, 000 to 15,000 deceased and one dessicated but still brilliantly red bouquet of roses.


Hannah and I paid the modest entry fee and stepped into this dirt floored, cob-webbed crypt    IMG_1948                                           accompanied by piped in funereal music. We were on our own and Hannah got right to work documenting all the teeth with photos and sketches. This can take some time, but hey, this is what we were here for.  IMG_1944

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IMG_1922  IMG_1927 (you see the skulls spelling in Latin, yes?)

Suddenly the music stopped and the ticket taker, who was well out of view, called out several sentences to us in Czech and then we heard her feet ascend the stairs, leaving us undisturbed and wondering what on earth she had just told us. Once Hannah finished her teeth documentation we headed up and found that the ticket taker had apparently closed up “shop”, but luckily just with a rope which could easily be untied–no wonder we had had the crypt to ourselves!

From the crypt we headed next door to the  Lobkowicz castle. Replenished by our coffee break in the castle parlor for which we were the only guests and woefully under-dressed,

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we poked around (no other visitors during the whole visit and no guards in sight–I think we could have taken up residence and no one would have noticed) to see what sorts of things the Lobkowiczes collected. I think this qualifies as quirky and at the very least fit in rather nicely with the ossuary theme of the day:


We were not

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Sedlec Ossuary: This will wake you up!

Hopefully you have not tired of bones, because here comes the most remarkable site on our grand ossuary tour: the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic (just one hour east of Prague). This crypt, containing the remains of 40,000 people,      IMG_20150411_100203433     is no ordinary ossuary (if indeed an ossuary could ever be considered ordinary), it is an extraordinary work of art, an eccentric work of creative genius by the 19th woodworker, Frantisek Rint, who was given free reign to organize the 16th century ossuary bones that had been originally stacked  by a half-blind monk in 1511.      Rint  had a field day arranging  the old, artlessly stacked bones into all manner of sculpture and wall drawings:                                  IMG_20150411_092522634

IMG_20150411_092601885                     He created this magnificent coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family, Rint’s employer.

IMG_20150411_094147389    and chalices,

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and writing (above right: the artist’s signature)


IMG_20150411_093655142                     and even a hanging chandelier

comprised of at least one of every type of human bone.           IMG_20150411_101054038

It is hard to find words to do justice to the Sedlec Ossuary. Monumental, magical, and oddly, not morbid, or at least not morbid in the way I used to think of that word before this trip.

The Great Santini

After tooling around the very interesting and underrated city of Brno, with medieval labyrinthine tunnels that wind this way and that under the city, Hannah and I hired a wonderful guide, Helena Svedova, to drive us into the Czech countryside. We had read that there was a very unusual ossuary in the crypt under the Pilgrimage Church in the village of Krtiny, (Hannah and I worked all day to master the pronunciation of KRTINY which sounds like a sneeze–I don’t think we came close to succeeding even though intrepid guide/ tutor Helena was encouraging and complimentary) unusual, because here several of the skulls are painted with decorative laurel motifs, the only known example of this in the Czech republic.,                                                                       IMG_20150409_103839643

The magnificent Krtiny Church of the Virgin Mary IMG_1248       IMG_20150409_110144921_HDR

was designed by the renowned Baroque architect Santini, who was hired to design several basilicas in this region. We had no idea what a treat we were in for. Helena had called ahead to arrange a viewing of the crypt for us which is not normally open to the public. The monseigneur of the church greeted our arrival with a special carilloning of the bells       IMG_20150409_105340534                                                                and then gave us an intimate tour of the basilica. We loved this monseigneur who so clearly loved his church. In describing the genius of Santini, the monseigneur used the words, ” a Niagara Falls of light”.   Tears came to his eyes as he recounted the story of the building of the church.                                                                   IMG_20150409_102146514          IMG_1261                                                   Santini unfortunately died before the builders got to the most difficult part of the dome.                                         IMG_20150409_101726778                  IMG_20150409_102558391_HDR                                                    They became so overwhelmed they didn’t think they could proceed. The next day a mysterious carpenter showed up to work. With his guidance they all got back to work. Every night the carpenter mysteriously disappeared, never joining them at the pub or to bed down with them at the tavern. Every morning he returned and led them through the next difficult section. When they finally finished their work they realized their daily visitor had been Joseph (as in Jesus’s father)

After a very complete tour of the basilica the monseigneur led us down into the crypt          IMG_20150409_103219304                                                          where beside the painted skulls (which denote church patrons), there were neatly stacked and niched (by contemporary archaeologists) IMG_20150409_103447202     IMG_1268         IMG_20150409_103909988  several hundred skulls and femurs.

The Krtiny Church also houses a wonderful collection of devotional paintings by untrained artists, given to the church in gratitude for favors granted:

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We were fortunate that our route with Helena to Poland brought us to a second Santini masterpiece,

IMG_20150410_090153591             IMG_20150410_090434178_HDR                                              the pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk at Zelena Hora, pictured above. This church serves as a reliquary to the tongue of St John Nepomuk, the patron saint of Bohemia. Look up at the impossibly high, vaulted ceiling to see a sculptor’s rendition of the tongue:IMG_1329 the symbol of St. John’s incorruptibility. He had been the confessor for the queen of Bohemia and refused to divulge what he heard whispered in the confessional.

And finally today we crossed into Poland to visit the Kaplica Czaszek (skull chapel) in St. Bartolomew’s Church, Czermna in the spa town of Kudowa Zdroj.                                                          IMG_20150410_145637066                                             This tiny side chapel houses a most astounding display of bones covering every inch of wall and ceiling, arranged in stunning patterns. Just as we were about to leave the chapel guide, after leading everyone in Polish prayer, lifted up a trap door in the floor and revealed that there were hundreds (thousands?) more bones strewn unceremoniously below us.




Books, Bones and More Bones

After a long day driving across Germany on Easter Sunday we arrived at our destination, the Basilica in the Bavarian town of Waldsassen only to discover the 10 jewel-encrusted skeletons we came to visit were totally obscured by scaffolding and plywood partitions recently erected to begin the enormous task of renovating the church. We could barely make out these treasures once our eyes adjusted to the darkness.

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So, sadly, my worrisome premonition that all might not be well with the Waldsassen skeletons turned out to be true–sigh. It was such an out-of-the-way place.  Well, they’ll be back on view sometime in 2017 if anyone else is tempted to venture here. We were still happy we’d come to Waldsassen though, as there is a most magnificent 17th century library in the abbey next door,



complete with tooled leather volumes, fresco-ed ceilings and wonderfully eccentric carving.

We awoke the next morning to…. SNOW! IMG_0966

UGH! The Bavarian countryside, as we could see from the train,  was completely coated in white. I hope, dear Boston, that you are DONE with the white stuff, if so maybe you have us to thank. We feel we have brought it with us.

We arrived in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic last night. Fortified by a typical Czech breakfast of, well, EVERYTHING. We headed off for the Brno ossuary




50,000 souls, whose skeletons were placed in the underground passageways beneath the church as a way of addressing the lack of space in Brno’s cemeteries, overwhelmed by the plague. (Among other calamities). This ossuary, second largest in Europe, was recently rediscovered and has been open to the public only since 2012. Just a couple blocks away from the Brno ossuary is the equally incredible and eerie Capuchin crypt where naturally mummified monks layIMG_20150407_121439633



side by side.

Besides the mummified Capuchin monks, this crypt hold the beautiful bejeweled St. Clementiane with a waxen face:

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Brno may be the city of bones, but I cannot sign off from this posting without an image of the infamous Brno dragon which hangs from the ceiling of the old city hall. You might have another idea of what this creature is, but you would be wrong.IMG_20150407_132138980_HDR

Quirky first day

Hannah and I arrived in Germany on Aril 1, which we only now realized means our much anticipated Ossuary trip officially began on April Fools.  It is definitely off to a (good) quirky start. We found our first charnal house


in the small charming town of Oppenheim. This dense arrangement of skulls (you might be able to discern the gilded one at the middle/ right) and femurs are the remains of 20,000 Oppenheimer citizens who departed this earth from 1400 to 1750. This visit to the ossuary and the magnificent adjoining St Katherine’s Church



along with the beautiful half timbered houses that line the streets


Would have been reason enough to  love Oppenheim, but wait, there was more quirkiness in store!Turns out the world’s largest (could this be true?) collection of mousetraps can be seen at the local wine museum.


We never could figure out the connection between mousetraps and wine, but really what did it matter?!


And whoever said you can’t invent a better mousetrap?IMG_20150402_084247029



And I haven’t even mentioned the impressive collection of corkscrews…



Ossuary trip Post #1: intro

Ossuary Trip

On March 31, 2015 I fly with fellow artist, Hannah Verlin


to Frankfurt Germany to begin our much anticipated “Ossuary Trip”.

Three years ago, Hannah and another Boston Sculptor colleague, Laura Evans, and I were driving back from Cleveland, Ohio, having set up an exhibition of Boston Sculptors at the Ohio Sculpture Center. In whiling away the 11 hour drive I asked my fellow travelers if there was a fantasy trip they had in mind. Hannah was able to answer this question without a moment’s hesitation. She had obviously already given this a lot of thought. “ Oh ya! I want to go on an ossuary trip.” To which Laura and I both responded, “What’s an ossuary?” Hannah’s reply: “charnel houses”. Us: “Huh?” Once she got us to understand what ossuaries are, crypts where skeletal remains are stored, I replied. “Oh, I’d go with you on that trip in a minute!” “Really?” Yes, really. Turns out I’d already visited several ossuaries in my life, without knowing what they were called.  I visited the Rome catacombs when I was a kid and was enthralled. The bone-filled Rome crypt is amazingly decorative a visual feast. Much later, as an adult, I stumbled upon (and almost got locked in overnight–but that’s another story) a similar domed crypt in Cuzco where the bones were sorted by type and formed into careful, dense floral patterns, from floor to ceiling. I’ve also always been  intrigued with the reliquaries one sees in churches all over Europe: here the index finger of St. Catherine, there the vertebra of St. Michael, in the most exquisite carved and bejeweled boxes. I could stare at those for hours. “So, yes, really, Hannah, if you ever decide to go on your ossuary trip and want a travel partner, I’m in.”

That was three years ago. Since then Hannah and I had the opportunity to travel together for another exhibit of Boston Sculptors Gallery artists, this time to Peru. Our visit in Lima to the San Francisco Cathedral ossuary rekindled our trip fantasy .

IMG_20140202_151638247san Francisco Lima ossuary

Since then Hannah and I have checked with each other every few months, “Do you still want to go on that ossuary trip?’ “Yes!” We started doing research. Found a couple great books by ossuary expert, Paul Koudounaris, and chatted over several coffees about this trip of our dreams. About 6 months ago Hannah called me up. “Guess what! I wrote up a proposal for the ossuary trip and won the Museum School (Boston) Traveling Scholar Grant to do it! You still want to go?” “YES!!”

We’ll be traveling primarily to Germany and the Czech republic, with a one day trip to a village in Poland. These countries have a relatively high concentration of ossuaries. The styles range from highly decorative (we look forward to visiting a bone church in the Czech Republic where the chandeliers are composed of pelvic bones) to the morbidly austere (another Czech crypt where naturally mummified monks are lined up side by side on cots—not sure that will be my favorite). In Bavarian Germany there was a a kind of craze in the 1500’s of nuns sewing bejeweled costumes for skeletons (presumed to be saints). We’re hoping to visit one of the few churches which still has those on display to the public on Easter weekend, appropriately enough.


Hope you enjoy following along!