Pair of doves bohemian gothic tarot
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Sepulchral imagery in The Bohemian Gothic Tarot

Angels, doves and other cemetery motifs adorn BabaBarock's popular Gothic tarot deck.

Prague’s most atmospheric final resting place is Olšanské hřbitovy, which translates to Olšany Cemeteries – as it technically is 12 cemeteries that all run together. The most photogenic parts are the oldest, which have Gothic-style sculpture that has darkened and crumbled over time.  Several cards in The Bohemian Gothic Tarot deck use images from Olšany. The Ace of Swords features a well-aged marker with columns on the side of the plaque. Time has worn away any trace of the name. A rectangle capped with a temple-like pediment and side columns was a common style.

Another cemetery with a suitably Gothic ambiance is Malostranský hřbitov, the Malá Strana Cemetery. It is actually located in the Smíchov district. Both cemeteries were established in 1680 for plague victims, and the idea was to keep mass burials outside the city walls. Olšany is still in use, while the Malá Strana Cemetery saw its last burial in the 1880s, making it a time capsule. You can read more about these and other Prague cemeteries in our previous story.

grave maker bohemina gothic tarot
Grave marker bohemian gothic tarot
Grave marker Bohemian gothic tarot
grave marker bohemian gothic tarot
Tombstone in Olšany Cemeteries
Ace of Swords from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd
Ace of Swords from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd
Worn tombstone
Worn tombstones in Olšany Cemeteries

In the foreground of the Ace of Swords card is a decorative iron fence. These were intended to stop the soul of the occupant from roaming, as iron was thought to ground spirits. Many of these fences have grown rusty over time and become covered in climbing plants.

There were also some superstitions about dangers from people or animals stepping on a grave. One, for example, held that the soul of the occupant of a grave could be disturbed if an animal or person walked across a fresh grave. Poor people would rent a fence for a few months, while wealthier families would keep them permanently.

iron fence bohemian gothic tarot
Iron fence bohemian gothic tarot
Iron fence bohemian gothic tarot
Iron fence bohemian gothic tarot
bohemian gothic tarot

Iron fences around graves at Olšany Cemeteries

Doves and hearts from the 20th century

The Three of Swords features a pair of doves on the top of a tombstone, with one passed away and the other in mourning. This motif can be found across the 20th-century tombstones in Olšany, and even on very recent ones. It is likely it was among ready-made designs that mourners could pick from a catalogue. On the side, there is an obelisk with a pierced heart in a wreath. Obelisks were popular in the late 1800s, usually for wealthy or famous people, due to their cost. Heart symbols are not so common though.

Pair of doves bohemian gothic tarot
Pair of doves bohemian gothic tarot

Doves on tombstones at Olšany Cemeteries 

Dove on a tombstone at Olšany Cemeteries
Pair of doves bohemian gothic tarot
Doves on a tombstone at Olšany Cemeteries
Doves on a tombstone at Olšany Cemeteries
Heart motif bohemian gothic tarot
Heart motif
Three of Swords for The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd
Three of Swords from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd

Sad angels date back to the 1800s

The Page of Swords offers another typical motif, a sad angel at an altar-like monument. Variations of this theme can be found among the 19th-century graves. Unfortunately, the tombstone depicted on the Page of Swords has since been vandalized and only the armrest podium remains.

Statues that began as identical have aged differently, with some in almost perfect condition and others missing significant details. An elaborate metal lantern can also be seen. Many tombstones included places to hold commemorative candles, though this design is rather unusual due to its size. 

A standing female angel with a palm frond adorns the Knight of Wands. The palm is a symbol of resting in eternal peace. The laurel wreath should indicate someone achieved distinction in their lifetime, but in practice, anyone could use it.

Kneeling angle bohemian gothic tarot
Worn angel
Iron fence bohemian gothic tarot
Sad angels
Sad angel
Modern mourning angel
Modern mourning angel
Base of the vandalized sad angel tombstone
Base of the vandalized sad angel tombstone
Page of Swords from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd
Page of Swords from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd
Sad angel before it was vandalized
Sad angel before it was vandalized
Knight of Wands from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd
Knight of Wands from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd
Angel with a palm frond
Angel with a palm frond

Standing iron candle holders used to be a popular decoration for tombs, but these tend to fall apart over time due to rust and structural weakness and the glass is often also missing. A few can still be found in the older section of Olšany. It is more common now to mount a glass case directly on the tombstone itself. 

It is still common for people to leave flowers and candles on graves on holidays and anniversaries. Toys can often be seen on the graves of children.

Iron candle holder bohemian gothic tarot
Iron candle holder
Iron candle holder The Bohemian Gothic Tarot
Iron candle holder
A rusted candle holder bohemian gothic tarot
A rusted candle holder
Colourful candle holder bohemian gothic tarot
Colourful candle holder

Portraits and headless statues

The Five of Cups again shows a fenced grave, this time quite overgrown. In the background is a figure of a man holding a book and a cup in a pointed arch with a trefoil design. The man’s head has broken off. This is quite common as necks are unfortunately a weak point in all sculptures, and heads are subject to damage. This particular grave is on the outside wall of Olšanské hřbitovy in a small square area that is always open to the public. 

Damaged tombstone at Olšany Cemeteries
Badly damaged tombstone
Five of Cups from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd
Five of Cups from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd
Damaged tombstone at Olšany Cemeteries
Damaged tombstone at Olšany Cemeteries

A pair of twins on the Six of Cups recalls a popular grave in Olšany of two girls who were killed in a traffic accident in 1806: Františka and Antonia Klenková. The side of the card has a simple grave with a portrait of a woman in a covered box. Photos or large engravings of the deceased were common, and the tradition still extends to modern times. The background has a tombstone reminiscent of a Gothic spire. 

For taking photos, autumn is the best time to visit Prague’s cemeteries as the fallen leaves help to support the mood. In the days surrounding Nov. 2, or All Souls’ Day, the graves are decorated with candles and flowers. In Czech, this day is called Dušičky.

Portrait on a tombstone bohemian gothic tarot
Portrait on a tombstone
Portrait of a once-famous actress
Portrait of a once-famous actress
Gothic-style spire
Six of Cups from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd
Six of Cups from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd
Stone carving of sisters on an old tombstone
Klenková sisters on an old tombstone

Mourning fallen soldiers

A widow can be seen mourning at a grave decorated with a sword on the Ten of Swords. While this isn’t explicitly about a fallen solider, the sword is a reminder of conflict.

Several sections of Olšany are dedicated to soldiers who fell in wars, going as far back as the Napoleonic era. A large area with nameless concrete crosses is a reminder of World War I. One corner of Olšany has all of the British Commonwealth graves for soldiers who fell in Czechoslovakia in World War II. Nearby there are graves of Soviet soldiers and of course a memorial for Czechoslovak fighters. Many individuals who served are buried throughout the cemetery as well.

World War I memorial in a snowstorm
World War I memorial in a snowstorm
Monument for soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars
Monument for soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars
Ten of Swords from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd
Ten of Swords from The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, © BabaBarock Ltd
British Commonwealth graves in Olšany Cemeteries
British Commonwealth graves in Olšany Cemeteries

An article by BabaBarock with Raymond Johnston. Copyright BabaBarock Ltd, all rights reserved. Please contact us if you would like to syndicate or otherwise use this article.

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