Beautiful Painted Skulls  in an Austrian Ossuary 

Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
Jan. 23 2014 8:54 AM

The Painted Skulls of Hallstatt Charnel House

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

For the ultimate memento mori, you need only take a walk through one of Europe's ossuaries. Ossuaries house human bones that have been exhumed from their initial burial site. In places where there is scant room for cemeteries, bodies are interred in a grave and allowed to rest for five years or so. Then they are dug up and their skeletal remains transferred to the ossuary, where they sit alongside the bones of thousands of others.

Many ossuaries aren't just utilitarian storehouses, but chapels and subterranean rooms painstakingly decorated with the bones of their inhabitants. In the cold, musty corridors of the Paris Catacombs, rows of human skulls sit atop walls made from carefully piled femurs. At Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic, garlands of skulls hang from the ceiling and a chandelier made of skulls, shoulder blades, and arm bones dangles from an eave.


Intricately arranged and darkly beautiful, these ossuaries revere death and illustrate the fragility of human life. The macabre decorations also have an equalizing effect. No matter who these people were in life — rich or poor, happy or sad, loved or reviled — in death they are the same: skulls and bones; building blocks; one among thousands, indistinguishable from the rest.

Hallstatt Charnel House in Austria is a little different. Seven hundred skulls in this chapel are painted lovingly with the names of the deceased and the dates on which they died. Each is adorned with symbolic decorations: roses for love, laurels for valor, and crosses on the forehead.

The Hallstatt tradition of painting skulls began around 1720. Decoration styles changed over the centuries — the 18th-century skulls bear dark wreaths, while those from the 19th century onward are brighter and incorporate flowers.

The practice ended during the 1960s, when the Catholic church began to allow cremation. Look carefully, however, and you will find a skull emblazoned with "1983." It was added to the chapel in 1995 and belongs to a woman whose last wish was to become part of the charnel house.

Not all of the skulls at Hallstatt are painted. Some 500 more sit unadorned, untraceable to their owners. Placed beside the personalized skulls, their anonymity is poignant.

Some other astounding ossuaries:

View Hallstatt in a larger map

Ella Morton is a writer working on The Atlas Obscura, a book about global wonders, curiosities, and esoterica adapted from Atlas Obscura. Follow her on Twitter.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

The Best Thing About the People’s Climate March in NYC

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

John Oliver Debunks the Miss America Pageant’s Claim That It Gives Out $45 Million in Scholarships

Trending News Channel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Over There
Sept. 22 2014 1:29 PM “That’s Called Jim Crow” Philip Gourevitch on America’s hypocritical interventions in Africa.
Sept. 22 2014 1:37 PM Subprime Loans Are Back! And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.
Lexicon Valley
Sept. 22 2014 1:22 PM Is Arabic Really Just One Language? 
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Sept. 22 2014 2:12 PM Crusader, Sans Cape The superhero trappings of Gotham are just a clever disguise.
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 12:14 PM Family Court Rules That You Can Serve Someone With Legal Papers Over Facebook
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 11:23 AM Two Impacts, One Landslide … on Mercury
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.