The Body as Art: Bone Shields (Scent the Scene)

In this series, we examine aspects of death and bereavement through art, olfaction, and imaginative thinking. Feel free to follow along at home and leave your take on this scented death meditation below. 

This Week’s Muse

This month we are going to be examining human remains used in artistic pieces. Some of these works serve a religious or political objective, but all have required manipulation after death for purposes of aesthetics not related to the preservation of the actual person’s appearance; thereby blurring the line between the individual and the work of art. This week’s Gore Rating: 1 for lots of real human bones.

The Schwarzenberg Coat of Arms, František Rint 1870

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František Rint was a 19th-century woodcarver and carpenter who was tasked by his patrons the Schwarzenbergs to organise the bones at the Sedlec Ossuary in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in present-day Czech Republic. The chapel had always had a bone problem. See in 1278 the local abbot travelled to the Holy Lands and brought back a jar of earth from Golgotha and sprinkled it on the monastery cemetery. This led to the cemetery becoming a popular burial place, attracting people from all over Central Europe. Then there was the Black Death in the 14th century followed the 15th century Hussite Wars and the bodies really began to pile up. The chapel was built circa 1400 with both basement and upper-level ossuaries to accommodate the bones, but with 40,000-70,000 people in the church alone, it was not enough. Bones were everywhere. There was an attempt in 1511 to organise the bones, but one half-blind monk was tasked with the job and didn’t accomplish much. Fast forward to the Victorian era and Rink with his sheer whimsy with human remains. There are four large mounds of bones in the church along with gleeful cherubs holding skulls, garlands of bones, bone chandeliers, bone crucifixes, bone coats of arms, he even added his signature to the wall of the entrance in…you guessed it, bones.

Of all the pieces, the Schwarzenberg coat of arms is my favourite. Nothing says, “we run the show around here” then your family crest fashioned from the remains of the dead. I always felt that its intention was to intimidate, which Czech friends have argued it was just showing respect to a patron. I stand my statement because, knowing a fair amount of heraldry, I know coats of arms are all meant to intimidate. Its in the iconography used. Look at the bottom right side of the shield. That is depicting a raven pecking the eyes out of Turk’s head.

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This was added to commemorate a victory against the Turks in 1598 and they loved using it in their decorative arts, which again, I don’t think was for its aesthetic beauty and after all isn’t majesty and regalness just grander terms for, “I’m better, and you should know it”?

 

800px-hluboka_klika
The symbol used as a door handle at Hluboka Castle  

 

Scent the Scene

So how to scent this? Ash and Clay for the Bones but with a touch of powdery Orris to give the feeling of Old Dust.Aged Frankincense and Myrrh for the sense of Sacredness. Dark rich Potting Soil for the jar from Golgotha and just the whiff of the inky black fatty quality of Ravens Feathers.

 


That’s how I smell it, but what about you? How do you feel about human remains being used as art? What do you think the intentions of the piece are? Leave your comments below and don’t forget to subscribe to the DS&LG and never miss a scene.

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