The Incredible World of Painted Skulls and Bone Houses
Overlooking the Alps, in the idyllic Austrian mountain town of Hallstatt, a few hundred grave markers indicate the resting place of former residents. But those who choose to be buried there know that their final resting place will not be the sleepy little graveyard, but the subterranean charnel house (known as the beinhaus or ‘bone house’) a few short steps away.
The charnel house is home to over 1000 skeletons, with skulls neatly stacked up on top of one another. The macabre practice may seem outrageous today but storing older skeletons in ossuaries like this was not uncommon in the past. There are many striking examples across Europe, such as the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic with its skeletal chandelier, the elaborate San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan, and most famously the Paris catacombs which are the final resting place for more than six million people.
Hallstatt may not be as elaborate or expansive as some of the other ossuaries in Europe, but thousands of people visit the sleepy rural town every year to visit the charnel house, because more than 600 of the skeletons are not just arranged neatly but painted with ornate and meaningful designs.
Practical Skeleton Storage
The idea of digging up bodies and removing them may seem unthinkable and even grotesque but it was commonplace in the past. Until recently, cremation was outlawed by many Christian denominations (in particular Roman Catholicism) which meant burial was the only option. Coupled with other religious customs about burial, such as the need to be buried in consecrated ground, cemeteries began to run out of space and the question of what to do with fresh bodies became a pressing issue.
Although ossuaries have existed in some countries for at least 3000 years, it was during the 16 th-18th centuries that the practice really took off. Overcrowded graveyards were becoming hazardous – in 1780 walls of basements near to Les Innocents cemetery in Paris collapsed under the weight of the overpacked mass graves – and even in smaller towns the problem could no longer be ignored. The bones could not be disposed of and the solution was to store them in ossuaries where they could be stacked and efficiently packed into a much smaller space than if they were left in coffins.
The solution was so practical as an alternative to mass graves that they were often constructed to deal with the aftermath of plague and other disease outbreaks. Ossuaries such as the Ossuary of Saint-Maclou, Rouen were built specifically to house plague victims. Brno Ossuary, discovered in Czechia in 2001 is the second largest ossuary in Europe with 50,000 skeletons who largely died during outbreaks of cholera and the plague.
More recently there have been ossuaries built at Gallipoli and the Douaumont where unidentified soldiers were interred in ossuaries after the First and Second World Wars. Fontanelle Cemetery caves are home to the bones of both plague victims from the 17 th century and fallen soldiers from WWII.
Fontanels Cemetery, Italy where numerous painted skulls and bones reside. (Massimo Santi / Adobe)
A Morbid Form of Art
Ossuaries are awe inspiring places and it is understandable that many people find them extremely creepy. They are a favorite special location for paranormal and ghost hunting shows and have been the subject of many novels and horror movies such as 2014’s As Above, So Below.
The idea of getting lost or trapped in an underground catacomb with thousands of skeletons is terrifying enough, but many ossuaries do not simply stack the bones as efficiently as possible – they display them as a macabre kind of decoration.
Underground catacombs of Paris where skulls are displayed. (dirk94025 / Adobe)
The Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic has bones ornately arranged into coats-of-arms, chandeliers, and even the signature of the main artist to create the displays. Arciconfraternita Santa Maria dell'Orazione e Morte, Italy is home to another impressive chandelier made from human bones. The Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) in Évora, Portugal was built by a Franciscan friar in the 16 th century and has artfully arranged bones covering the walls and columns of the chapel leading up to the altar and San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan is filled with bones arranged into crosses and patterns as frescoes, beneath a spectacular painted ceiling.
These ossuaries are more than just storage for old skeletons, the bones have been treated as a medium to enhance beautiful architecture. Whether you think they are beautiful or creepy, they are breathtaking.
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Bones and skulls arranged on a column in a catacomb. (Guy Bryant / Adobe)
Painted Skulls – Another Artform?
The bones at Hallstatt have not been arranged into complex designs, and at around 1000 strong the numbers cannot compare to many of the other catacombs in Europe. But thousands of visitors make the trek to the tiny rural town to see them none-the-less, because around 600 of the skulls have been painted with a variety of designs.
Garlands of colorful flowers are especially popular on the skulls of women while the men are often crowned with ivy. Other decoration includes crosses, leaves, and branches. Some of the designs are almost cheerful, with pretty pink roses and brightly colored garlands. Others are relatively plain with a solitary black cross. All of the skulls have one thing in common – names and dates of death are painted in beautiful Gothic script across the forehead.
Skulls of women are painted with colorful flowers. (J. Ossorio Castillo / Adobe)
It may seem ghoulish at first. It is understandable that the bones needed to be stored somewhere and charnel houses are a practical solution. But using the skulls as a canvas is something entirely different.
However, the painted skulls are more than just another way of presenting the bones artistically. The chandeliers at Sedlec and Arciconfraternita Santa Maria dell'Orazione e Morte are inarguably impressive but the skulls atop each branch are not people anymore, they are ornamentation. At Hallstatt the ossuary reminds visitors that these people once led their own lives.
The Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) in Évora, Portugal was built by a Franciscan monk who aimed to create a place of contemplation where visitors would reflect on the transitory nature of life. And yet the vast wall of bones arranged into patterns and the skulls set into pillars have removed many of the aspects of humanity from the people interred there. Many of the skulls have been vandalized, scrawled with graffiti in biro and marker pens. The names on these skulls are the names of tourists – the people they belonged to have been forgotten, no one will ever know who they were.
Chapel of Bones in Portugal where a vast wall of bones and skulls are displayed. (Sergii Figurnyi / Adobe)
The History of a Town and its People
The painted skulls at Hallstatt allow visitors to pay respect to individuals but spending time among them builds up a touching picture of a town steeped in history. Some of the skulls have a name and a date of death. Others have more information – what they did for a living and when they were born. Together, you can piece together aspects of the history of Hallstatt and its people.
Distinctive family names appear time and time again, over the course of generations and the style of the paintings evolves as successive artists took over the role of skull-painter. The more time you spend looking at the skulls the more you begin to imagine who they were and the lives they led.
Although the majority of the ossuary skulls date from the 19 th century through the 1930s, there are some which are more modern. The most recent, and perhaps final, addition to the ossuary was in 1995 – the dying wish of a woman who passed away in 1983. The fact the ossuary meant so much to someone so recently is evidence it is an important part of the identity of Hallstatt and its residents.
Handled With Care
The more impressive ossuaries are remarkable and the people who made them must have been incredibly proud of their work. They are remarkable places, and their pride is entirely justifiable, but turning the bones into frescoes or using them as components to build other items is entirely different to the way they have been treated at Hallstatt.
The tradition of painting skulls started in Hallstatt in 1720. Bodies were exhumed after only a few years, typically between 10 and 15, before the bones were cleaned and left to bleach under the light of the sun and moon. When they finally turned ivory-white they were painted by the local gravedigger using earth based pigments – a detail which is reminiscent of the ritual use of ochre in ancient burials. It is a tradition that has been likened to leaving flowers at the side of a grave, to commemorate and pay respects to the dead.
Exhumed bodies – the bones are cleaned and left to bleach under the sun. (milkovasa / Adobe)
Because the bones were exhumed so soon after death there were usually surviving friends and family members who remembered the deceased. After the skulls were painted they would be laid to rest near the remains of other ancestors by their remaining loved ones.
The practice is far more wholesome than it might initially appear. Many other famous ossuaries have been somewhat commercialized, with guided tours and even gift shops selling replica skulls and t-shirts. Hallstatt remains a solemn place where ancestors can be remembered, both as individuals and en masse.
It is also interesting to note the tradition of painting skulls in this manner is not unique to Hallstatt. At the Schusterkapelle in Dingolfing, Germany there are 60 similarly painted skulls in a charnel house and Křtiny Ossuary, Moravia is also known for skulls painted in a style akin to those at Hallstatt. Presenting the skulls in this way is meaningful to more than just the people of Hallstatt and it offers an alternative to the anonymity and potential dehumanizing presentation in a standard ossuary. There is no way to get around the fact it is a collection of stacked skulls but painting them in this way does make it a more palatable solution.
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At Schusterkapelle in Dingolfing, Germany there are 60 painted skulls in a charnel house. (Helmlechner / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Looking to the Future
Ossuaries may have emerged out of necessity due to overcrowded cemeteries when cremation was outlawed, but even with cremation overcrowding is an ever growing concern in many places, especially in metropolitan areas such as London where extra space is impossible to come by.
People are increasingly turning to new and innovative ways to deal with human remains. Having a loved one turned into a diamond, biodegradable urns to nourish saplings, and even ancient style barrow burials are all available to us in 2019.
‘Memorial diamonds’ are human remains turned into a diamond. (roger blake / CC BY-SA 2.0)
With this increased willingness to consider alternatives to traditional burial, and a lack of available burial plots, the ossuary could end up making a return in the near future - it may even be necessary. And while grandiose displays would no doubt be appealing to some perhaps there is a place for the tradition of painting skulls to be rediscovered, too.
Top image: Skulls painted with names, colorful flowers, and crosses in the Charnel House in Hallstatt, Austria. Source: J. Ossorio Castillo / Adobe.
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