Monday, October 8, 2012

Curious History: Hallstatt Charnel House or House of Painted Skulls

Behind the Hallstatt Catholic Church in Austria, near the 12th-century St. Micheal’s Chapel, in a small and lovingly cared for cemetery is the Hallstatt Beinhaus (bone house), also known as the Charnel House. A small building, it is tightly stacked with over 1200 skulls. Because Hallstatt finds itself in such a lovely location, it also finds itself in very short supply of burial grounds. In the 1700s, the Church began digging up corpses to make way for the newly dead. The bodies which had been buried for only 10 to 15 years were then stacked inside the charnel house. Once the skeletons were exhumed and properly bleached in the sun, the family members would stack the bones next to their nearest kin. 

In 1720, a tradition began of painting the skulls with symbolic decorations as well as dates of birth and death so that the dead would be remembered, even if they no longer had a grave. Of the 1,200 skulls, some 610 of them were lovingly painted, with an assortment of symbols, laurels for valor, roses for love, and so on. The ones from the 1700s are painted with thick dark garlands, while the newer ones from the 1800s on, bear brighter floral styles.

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