Skulls and religion

The ancient Catholics were no wimps when it came to remembering their dead.

Hallstatt, V

If you happened to be a saint, you could bet that bits of your body would be preserved in some container to be revered forever. If, however, you were only a simple mortal, a tombstone generally had to suffice.

Hallstatt, VI

But then there were the few lucky ones whose inner self made it into the future. I am talking here, of course, of the skeletons of the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of believers that were lucky enough to have their bones kept for later use, rather than having them rot away underground. All over Europe, there are churches and monasteries with limited space whose last resort was to turn the burying business into a real business.

Hallstatt, VII

If you wanted grave space, you needed to pay up. Later, once your rent had invariably expired – no choice there – you could opt for eternal preservation. The monks of the Capuchin Crypt in Rome had their bones turned into something useful – a lamp, for example. In Hallstatt, Austria, your hard matter was more likely to end up as something artistic. Generations of painters were recruited to decorate the skulls of your beloved with names and symbols. Little did they know that their work would be exhibited against a modest fee to visitors from all over the world more than a century later.

Hallstatt, VIII

While it might look ironic and slightly odd to us, these rather crude methods of the past are rooted in serious beliefs and reflect what an introverted community the people of Hallstatt were, not to speak of the Capuchins who had even more ideological reasons to preserve their forefathers’ body parts in their ossuaries. As they solemnly remind the modern visitor:

“What you are, we once were.
What we are, you will become.”

In Kyiv, Ukraine

When I visited Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, the “orange revolution” that toppled the then-president, Leonid Kuchma, had just ended a few months before. Aside from a colourful – albeit not orange – demonstration in the centre of town was the only thing that was faintly reminiscent of the upheaval the capital had gone through. I was on business in Kyiv, but a good part of that business also allowed for visiting the main sites, including the impressive Orthodox churches and tombs.

2005_5 Kyiv_005

Kiyv is a city of contradictions. Socialist architecture dominates the skyline but coexists with traditional sacral buildings and a few houses from the 19th century. Religious traditions and sentiments are still important in Kyiv, even though Communism did its utmost to eradicate it. Young people congregate on the squares around the Orthodox church complexes, and priests can be seen filing into church for prayer, crossing themselves in prostration before entering the sacred place. The picture shown here is just such a scene; orthodox priests seemingly sceptical about something going on, or some of their fellow priests arriving late for service.