Wreaths of Roses and Ivy Adorn Painted Skulls

by A-Badgero

The beautifully adorned skulls in St. Michael's Church in Hallstatt provide a moving history of the community's residents since the 12th century. - Kiley Arial Photography

The church of Saint Michael has been standing since the 12th century. It is surrounded by a graveyard  and built against a cliff where it overlooks the town of Hallstatt.  The basement chapel of the church contains demonstrations of a ritual that has fallen out of practice almost everywhere else in Austria. It houses a Karner (Charnel House), a place of second burial which used to be a common practise in the Eastern Alps but has since been abandoned.  Karners and ossuaries were a long standing tradition practised in Central Europe that started to fall out of style in the late 18th century.

The Hallstatt Beinhaus (bone house) houses over 1200 skulls of which 600 to 700 of the skulls are elaborately decorated with hand painted flower designs, crosses and the deceased’s information. Due to the small size of their cemeteries, the lack of the possibility for expansion and the fact that cremations were forbidden in this time it has long been a tradition for Austrian graves to be merely rented for a period of 10-15 years.

Female skulls are painted with the family's choice of flower while male skulls are painted with ivy.

Once the rental period expired the graves are opened and the bones and skull are removed. The skull is then cleaned and exposed to sun and moonlight for weeks or until they became bleached ivory white by the elements. Just as other cultures decorate graves with flowers the skulls are painted with a symbolic crown of flowers along with the deceased’s name and date of death. The Bone House in Hallstatt holds the world’s most remarkable collection of painted skulls.  In this culture the skulls have ultimately taken on the role of a gravestone. This tradition has been practised here since the church was built .

The task of decorating the skulls would traditionally fall onto that of the grave digger. If the deceased was a female he would paint whatever type of flowers the family requested on their temples and crowns and if the skull belonged to a man it was adorned with wreaths of oak or ivy leaves. In addition nearly every skull was embellished with a maltese cross on their forehead.

The skulls represent entire communities throughout the ages, they are grouped by family with many of the family’s descendants still living in Hallstatt.  Each skull is accompanied by fairly complete records of births, death and marriages that date back as far as the 17th century making this site an ideal source for genetic studies as well as obviously a gold mine for anthropologists who study cranial traits and heritability.

The latest dated skull to be added to the collection is from 1995 from a local woman who died in 1983 with her last wish being to have her remains stored in the Bone House.  Her skull resides directly below the cross in the centre of the collection with her gold tooth still intact.  Requesting to have your skull added to the collection in writing is presently the only way that skulls are added to the Karner.

Read more:

Your holiday in Hallstatt | Hallstatt, Austria


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