Friday, August 07, 2009

The Beinhaus

There are at least two churches in Hallstadt: the Lutheran, which has the distinctive pointy tower that figures in the skyline, and the Catholic, which is rounder, older, and higher on the hill. The Lutheran has a beautiful wooden ceiling, and two lofts above. But the Catholic has two amazing wooden altarpieces. The one above is from the late Gothic, and is all about Mary. Mary is in the middle with Holy Barbara and Holy Katherine, and the side panels are Mary's birth, the Annunciation, Jesus's birth, and Mary's death. It was such a golden spectacle and we just weren't expecting it in a little church in the hinterlands.
Out behind the Catholic church is a cemetery, and this little building, called a Beinhaus or a Charnel house. Like many places in Europe, lots of people have lived here, but space is at a premium. Hallstadt solved this by digging up graves 10-20 years after someone had died and emptying them out to make room for new ones. They'd set out the bones to dry completely.
Then they would decorate the skulls as an act of love or reverence. They put on name, dates, and sometimes how the person died as well. The Beinhaus has been around since 1200, but they began decorating the skulls near 1750. They have 1200 in the house, about half are decorated and organized by family.
Laurel leaves mean victory, roses are for love, snakes are for death, etc. Each of the kids picked out a favorite skull. The last person in the charnel house died in 1983 and was placed in the house in 1995 by request (the only way it happens now -- people are just creamated and buried in Salzburg for the most part). It was really cool. And it was really creepy.
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