Skeletons of 50,000 people were lost under a town square for centuries
There are often surprises when people start looking around a old basement or attic. In 2001, repairs were being made to the square in front of the Church of St James the Greater in Brno, South Moravia. Just under the street level, the workmen found rooms and tunnels filled top to bottom with human bones. It wasn’t the work of a prolific serial killer, unless you want to call plague and war by those names. The underground complex holds the remains of 50,000 people gathered over five centuries. The space was finally opened to the public in 2012.
The place is not unique, and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire has a lot of similar places, as while plague and disease ravaged the lands there was limited burial space around most churches. Crypts and other underground spaces were made to hold the excess skeletons.
Urban cemeteries were outlawed by Emperor Joseph II in 1782 for reasons of public health. Some churches moved the graves outside the city, others simply covered them over and forgot about them. At the same time, significant tombstones were moved into the church as part of the décor, put in the crypt or buried as rubble. The Church of St James (Kostel svatého Jakuba Staršího) has examples of all three.
The stairway leading from the church nave to the crypt was covered over with a stone slab. And the crypt was forgotten. There were rumors of some bones somewhere, but even those fell short of what was eventually discovered.
The Church of St James and surrounding cemetery at Jakubské náměstí was established in the 13th century. The tunnels and underground rooms, which were expanded as needed, were initially accessed from the cemetery, but later they connected with the crypt, making one large underground network. This Roman Catholic church served a mainly German and Dutch congregation.
The St James Ossuary is the largest in the Czech Republic by sheer number of bones. Only the catacombs of Paris are larger. But truth be told, the Brno ossuary lacks the artistic flair of the so-called Bone Church in Kutná Hora, where the bones have been made into chandeliers and other designs. It easily bests the one in Mělník with just a paltry 10,000 skeletons in large piles, and the rather small one in Putim, South Bohemia. Kutná Hora and Mělník are both near Prague.
Part of the St James Ossuary including a Chapel of the Dead has left the bones in their original positions. In other areas, the bones were removed and cleaned, and put back in new shapes to allow for better access and visibility. Items such as remnants of metal crosses were moved to a display case near the entrance. Some of the coffins are also on display, with skeletons intact, and a few modern sculptures have been added to create a mood. Somber music plays continually.
Forensic testing shows that many of the bones come from plague (a big one was in 1349, the last in 1713) and cholera victims and from the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) and the Swedish siege of Brno (1645). Also, graves were re-used, and once one was abandoned by a family the old bones would be moved into storage, as it were, and the grave rented to a new family. Graves lasted about 10 to 12 years on average before they were turned over.
Some 24 coffins also survived in the crypt, including some for children, though in poor condition. The lids had elaborate painted scenes of the crucifixion. The crypt seems to have been reserved for the wealthy patrons of the church and clerics, such as counts, military figures and priests, while the tunnels were for the masses. The tunnels with bones filed up faster than expected, and an expansion took place in 1741. Plans to expand further were made but never finished.
The church itself is also worth checking out. It has several tombs including one for Field Marshall Jean-Louis Raduit de Souches and several paintings including a copy of an icon of the Black Madonna. The tower has a large bell and offers a view of some of the city.
There is also a whimsical element on the south-facing side of the Church of St James. High up on a Gothic arch there is an indecent little man. He is facing a rival church at Petrov and exposing his behind. Both churches were being built at the same time, and the master builder of the St James Church had been forced out of his job due to local politics. He left his opinion in the last window frame he completed.
The bone-filled tunnels aren’t the only spooky attraction in Brno, which is much less touristy than Prague. It also has some mummies of Capuchin monks at the St Peter and St Paul Church at Kapucínské náměstí, and at the old Town Hall, there is the remains of a real stuffed dragon, which looks suspiciously like an alligator, and a wheel that may have been made with the help of the Devil.