Recent interdisciplinary symposium and bone churches

Scholars in conference! Left to right T'anta Wawa, my own self and Martin Rundkvist

Scholars in conference! Left to right T'anta Wawa, my own self and Martin Rundkvist

An impromptu affair occasioned by the presence of the good Dr Rundkvist in the UK for purposes of being amazing, or amazed, or both! And like all proper academics we gathered in a pub to moan about the field and enthuse about each other’s projects. There was also a resolve that this would be properly documented on all three blogs, which will at least make TW post something :-) Martin is way ahead of me though.

Also, while I’ve attracted both of your attentions via pingbacks, you two, and also indeed Colleen Morgan at Middle Savagery if I may, what about this article about ‘houses of bones’ in the Czech Republic, which I found via Archaeology in Europe? I mean, this would cause NAGPRA campaigners to choke on their own incredulous disgust, but it’s even a good long way off contemporary practice in Western Europe too innit? All the current debates about the scholarly and artistic use of bodies, from the furore over Gunther Hagens’s Bodyworlds exhibitions to arguments over the reburial of the Anglo-Saxon bodies from that cemetery at Barton-on-Humber a few years back, I don’t think any of them considered anything like this:

The ossuary at Mělník (open daily except Mondays; cost 30 Kč) contains the bones of up to 15,000 people, arranged along the walls of an old crypt beneath the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. Skulls are used to create patterns and spell out words – including large letters reading “Ecce Mors,” or “Behold Death.”

I mean, the first ‘teaching point’ I get out of this is that it’s no use talking about Christian attitudes to the dead as if they’re all the same or laid down in Scripture, but I also wonder what we think an appropriate reaction for us as spokespersons for our various ideas of best practice. This seems to me a very alien way of ‘living with the dead‘, but (except for the artwork constructions! and that’s a fairly big ‘except’) it’s also a pragmatic and Roman one, isn’t it? Only this isn’t a Roman zone and the prevailing culture arrived after the collapse of the Empire in the West. They were Christianised from both West and East, but in Germany or in Byzantium burial practices were not like this, were they? I just don’t know whose peculiarity this is and what frame to use to look at it through. But am I just being the naïf Western medievalist here? Because this, this is nothing I recognise:

Ossuary display in the Kaplica Czaszek, Kudowa-Zdrój, Poland

Ossuary display in the Kaplica Czaszek, Kudowa-Zdrój, Poland

11 responses to “Recent interdisciplinary symposium and bone churches

  1. You need to spend more time in Rome:

    Ditto in Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte on the Via Giulia.

    • I am suitably disturbed. And yes, of course I need to spend more time in Rome, but it joins Barcelona, Vic, Vienna, Aachen, Madrid, Cördoba and, hell, Antioch would be nice, in that list… Whereas instead I fear that my next trip abroad is to Kalamazoo.

  2. Pingback: Recent interdisciplinary symposium and bone churches « A Corner of … | crypts

  3. Ha, you’ve got me there, the blogcito is more neglected than ever although the impending elections should cause greater posting frequency.

    Your bony buildings rather remind me of the Paris catacombs, which on a visit struck me as a particularly potent assertion of post-Enlightenment values, combining as they did the progressive embrace of scientific medicine (‘hey guys, do you think the epidemics we’ve been suffering from might have anything to do with all these cadavers buried near our water supplies?’) and a shift in attitudes to mortal remains which, to my perception, represented a rather cold rationalist aesthetic. My first thought was that arranging bones ornamentally without regard for their former occupants, if we can call them that, was indicative of a society which had self-consciously ‘advanced’ beyond supersitition (insert fluffy caveat about not endorsing Victorian evolutionism and self-image of 19th century Europeans as being ‘more advanced’) and therefore reverence for mortal remains. However on revisiting the idea it’s rather more thought-provoking, so I’m going to go away and have a good old mull. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    (P.S it hardly needs saying but attitudes to deceased ancestors and the placement/disposal of their remains varies wildly throughout the world – there are are some interesting examples from Ghana and Madagascar about how the dead are kept around in a physical manner. I’m tempted to draw an analogy with the concretisation of states and ideas of nationhood and common origin and thus the inclination to place all dead people together to indicate a symbolic common ancestry, but that might be playing fast and loose a little).

    • My first thought was that arranging bones ornamentally without regard for their former occupants, if we can call them that, was indicative of a society which had self-consciously ‘advanced’ beyond supersitition…

      But as you say it’s more complex than that, not least because these (and Theo’s Roman sites even more so) are all religious buildings, monastic ones in the Roman cases, and the Roman ones still more confusing because there are intact, articulated and dressed bodies in there as well as the dismember artworks.

      I think time is the main thing that seems to be operating as a distinction here; some bones are so old that no-one speaks for them and they can be disarranged. There was dispute, I think throughout the Middle Ages but certainly in the early period, over whether damage to a body would be made good at the Resurrection between people sorting out their own burials and wanting to be ‘all there’ come the Judgement and churchmen who were detached enough (no pun intended) to contend that God would make all good and it wouldn’t matter if one’s earthly body had turned to dust etc. I still find it alien to a Christian culture otherwise sometimes best known to us through burial that people should sign up to be buried in these places where they must have been able to see their bodies would become fodder for decorators once they’d mouldered. But that’s where the Roman and Milanese catacombs (and indeed the Paris ones, which I didn’t know about) come in as a counter-example to that churchyard or cemetery burial paradigm, and they might also be a bit old for your common ancestry paradigm though I can see room for statements of non-biological community in this practice I suppose.

      So, okay, time on the one hand, reverence goes stale; and secondly, urban settings meaning that space has to be economised. I can start with that. But I wonder what fifteenth-century Bohemian arguments about the Resurrection were like. That however leads us to Hussites and I don’t think I want to go there this side of my academic life…

  4. The Czech bone churches and the mention of the Paris catacombs reminded me of late medieval burial practices (in England and France at least), which incorporated overt public display of remains in charnel houses as an ever-present reminder of mortality and of man’s sinful state. 15thC transi tombs featured graphic depictions of rotting flesh and bones, and the macabre ‘dance of death’ also became a common artistic motif in the later Middle Ages (the depictions at the Cimitiere des Innocents in Paris being the most famous example). Also, isn’t the display of saintly relics in the churches of Western Europe – I was surprised to see two entire skeletons on display in glass cases in a small village church in northern France – along the same lines?
    I wonder if it is not so much the display of remains themselves, but the mixing up of the remains of many different people in the Czech example, that bothers us? Perhaps it covertly messes with our post-Enlightenment idea of the autonomous individual. Or maybe, on a darker note, it is too graphic a reminder of the mass graves of 20th century concentration camps.

    • I think you’re quite right with that latter point, that is certainly what bugs me about it but I was trying to keep my personal feelings about the practice out of the initial statement. It seems to me that, although Theo’s Roman examples mix it up more, these are not mementones mori (or whatever the plural really be) because they don’t deprecate the flesh and bone but elevate it into something else. Do you see what I mean? It’s not quite “all mens’ lovers come to this”, it’s more like a blending into the Church itself. I wonder if that in fact could be the design concept?

      Still seems very odd to me though.

  5. Oh, and Jonathan re: your comment on the dispute over damage/separation of dead bodies, this (re)emerged as a contentious point of political and religious debate from the 13th century, when it became the practice for aristocrats/royalty to will that various parts of their bodies be interred in different parts of their realms after death. A number of popes had a big problem with the practice because of the belief in bodily resurrection and the relatively new concept of Purgatory. (It paralleled similar debates over human dissection.)

    • Really that way round? Shows how much I know! Where would one start reading for such things? Geary’s Living With the Dead seems like an obvious place for the early end, I suppose, but I don’t know later at all.

      • I don’t know much about practices in the early Middle Ages, but the practice of bodily division became popular (again?) from the 12thC partly because of people dying on Crusade wanting to ensure they’d also have a burial ‘at home’. I suppose it was impractical to preserve and send an entire body, but a heart or a brain was manageable.
        From memory, it was post-1215 Lateran Council that it became a contentious issue for the Church. Paul Binski’s Medieval Death is good for all this. It’s a general survey, starting in late antiquity and tracing practices through to the 1400s.

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