The Painted Skulls of Hallstatt
The Hallstatt Bonehouse
Everyone who visits Hallstatt in Austria is likely to pay a visit to its Ossuary, more often called Karner (Charnel House), or simply Beinhaus (Bone House). The Bone House is one of Hallstatt’s treasures. It’s among the last of such places in all of Austria. Karners, places of second burials, were once much more common in the Eastern Alps, but they have now largely disappeared. The Bone House in Hallstatt is one of the last, and it has always contained one of the the most remarkable collections of painted skulls, anywhere.
The Bone House is located in a chapel in the basement the Church of Saint Michael. That church has been standing there since at least the 12th century CE, built against the steep cliffs of the Hallberg, surrounded by the graveyard and overlooking the town and the lake.
The Parish Church, built at a later date than St. Michael’s church, stands high above the rest of the town, and it’s one of its most recognizable landmarks. It shares a small terrace of level ground with St. Michael and the graveyard. A corner just inside the graveyard walls is one of the best places for admiring the town below, the lake just beyond, and the mountains closing it all in. The mood of the setting changes with the weather. On rainy days its easy to imagine you are in a Japanese landscape painting.
Today, the Hallstatt collection of painted skulls is also a treasure trove for anthropologists who study heritability of cranial traits (i.e. Torsten Sjoevold, Neus Martinez Abadias). The skulls are accompanied by fairly complete records of births, deaths and marriages dating back to the 17th century and kept by the Catholic Church. This makes the skull collection an an ideal resource for genetic studies. Researchers are able to match crania to individual records, reconstruct pedigrees, assess degrees of relatedness, and determine if certain physical characteristics can be passed on or not.
Entering the basement of St. Michaels is like entering a crypt. The basement, where the Bonehouse is located, is partially hewn into bedrock. There are no windows, and the only light comes from candles and daylight filtering through wrought iron gates. It’s normally still and quiet inside. The Bone House is an excellent place for reflection.
The Bone House is a place of repose for some 700 painted skulls.
They are lined up on rows of wooden shelves along three of the cahpel walls. Another 500 or so undecorated skulls, bare and without any kind of adornment, are stacked in the corners. Underneath the shelves, neatly stacked like logs of firewood, are the large bones of the deceased – femurs, tibias and the like. They are without decoration or inscription, it’s impossible to connect them in any way to their former owners. At the front of the chapel, is a kind of altar with a cross. Strikingly decorated skulls, among them two with snakes crawling out of their eye sockets, flank the cross.
Nearly all of the decorated skulls bear a Maltese Cross on their forehead. For some this is the only decoration. Many others also bear their name on their forehead, as well as the year of their birth or death, sometimes both. The skulls have taken on the role of a gravestone.
But it’s the additional decorations that make the painted skulls of Hallstatt outstanding. Decorating the skulls was traditionally the job of the grave digger. At the request of the family, he painted garlands of flowers and roses on their temples and crowns, if they belonged to a woman or girl. If the deceased was a man, the grave digger adorned the skull with painted wreaths of oak or ivy. That was the common, but not always followed practice.
The skulls are grouped by family, many of these families still live in Hallstatt and neighboring communities. More importantly, the skulls represent the entire communities through the ages. Although in the graveyard Protestants have their own area and Catholics have the rest, there is no such separation in the Bone House. Catholics and Protestants sit side by side, as they have done in real life. There is also no social stratification. Although Mayors and Priests occupy prominent postions, as they did in their community, bankers and paupers, gravediggers and miners, all share a resting place in the Bone House.
The crypt like atmosphere of the Karner, lit with candles and skulls stacked up on shelves, leaves visitors with a foreboding of their ultimate destiny and also a sense of wonder. What’s the purpose of this tradition? When did it start, why did it begin? Is it still practiced today?
This series of articles on the Bone House will address these questions, and more. I also intend to dig deeper into the question: “why do the people of Hallstatt decorate and store the skulls of their dead in an ossuary?” The traditional explanation has been:
“The graveyard is too small. It can hold hold only a limited number of graves, and until recently, the church didn’t allow cremation. Therefore, to make room for newly deceased, the bodies of our long dead are exhumed and their skulls are stored in the Bone House. Their graves are then available for new burials.”
Residents of Hallstatt offer that explanation with a straight face, and tourist guides repeat it unexamined. At best it’s only part of the answer. The truth is a little more complex, and as is often the case, more interesting.