Head Cases

The Chapel of Skulls, in Czermna immediately north of Kudowa-Zdrój, was built in 1776 and looks pretty modest from the outside. Inside, however, it’s a different story: thousands of neatly arranged skulls and bones decorate the walls, with more suspended from the ceiling. It’s the only chapel of its kind in Poland and one of just three in Europe.

The creator of this unusual ‘Sanctuary of Silence’ was one Václav Tomášek, a Czech parish priest (Czermna belonged to the Prague Archdiocese at that time). Inspired by Rome's Capuchin Crypt, he and the local gravedigger spent two decades collecting human skeletons, which they then cleaned and conserved. The ‘decoration’ of the chapel wasn’t completed until 1804. Skulls and bones that didn’t fit on the walls and the ceiling were deposited in a 4m-deep crypt.

Since the region was the borderland of the Polish, Czech and German cultures, and of Catholic, Hussite and Protestant traditions, many of the bones belonged to victims of nationalist and religious conflicts. The skeletons came mostly from numerous mass graves, the result of two Silesian wars (1740–42 and 1744–45) and the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). The cholera epidemic that plagued the region also contributed to such an impressive quantity of raw material.

Several anatomically interesting skulls are displayed on the main altar, including those of a Tatar warrior, a giant and a victim of syphilis. Alongside them are the skulls of the mastermind of the enterprise – the priest and the gravedigger – at one with their work for all eternity.