The Painted Skulls of Hallstatt

June 30, 2018 § Leave a comment

HallstatterseeThe Austrian town of Hallstatt is beautiful. Slightly touristy, but still beautiful. It sits on the edge of the Hallstattersee, where pleasure cruisers entertain the holiday-makers who haven’t ridden the funicular up to the salt mines that pock-mark the looming mountains.

As evening falls the tourists leave, their coaches heading onwards to Salzburg or Vienna. A few of them, perhaps, will have walked to the edge of town, to the Chapel of St Michael and the small building that sits beside it with the word ‘beinhaus’ written in stark, black-letter text above the entrance.

I arrive in Hallstatt later than expected so have to rush along the single main street, against the flow of tourists heading back from the closing shops, to get to the church grounds before it is closed to visitors. The church itself is an angular building but I have time to do little more than glance up at its white-washed walls and black slate roof as I crunch along the gravel path to the beinhaus, the ossuary. The door is guarded by a stern-faced, middle-aged man who glares out from above an impressively Teutonic moustache. The clock hasn’t yet struck six so I chance my luck. “Fünf minuten, vielleicht?” I ask him. “Nur zwei,” he replies. It seems unwise to haggle further so I nod and duck into the small, stone building.

I’ve been to ossuaries before, many of them in many parts of the world. They all have their own impact; some stern and cold, simply collections of bones rendered meaningless by quantity, while others, like the Sedlec ossuary near Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic, have a humanity to them that is almost comforting. The ossuary of the Chapel of St Michael, small as it may be, is beyond any of this. I gasp as my eyes adjust to the candle-haunted gloom.

Ranks of time-smoothed human skulls, each one delicately hand-painted, sit on rows of tiered shelving. Some of the skulls are relatively plain, with little more than the name of the soul who once dwelt within, whereas others are adorned with flowers, wreaths and religious iconography. One, a more recent addition, has a snake writhing through the eye sockets; a reminder of our original sin, perhaps, or maybe just simple decoration. Families rest together, the Kierschlagers form a small group to the right of the doorway, but some seem to sit apart, turned away from their peers. It is a community in microcosm, with individuals as unique as those who still live in the town today.


They are individuals, of course, and that is the point of why these skulls have been decorated so beautifully. Someone cared enough to see that it was done, but why? Like much folk art it started from relatively prosaic necessity. Graves, catacombs and ossuaries are all part of the mechanism that transforms a human body from a corpse – not only a physically dangerous thing to leave lying around but also an emotionally troubling reminder of our own mortality – to the once-removed, inert bones of a skeleton. In places where land is at a premium, such as Alpine Austria, graves are also at a premium and so, once the flesh has decayed away, bodies are often removed from the ground and placed in an ossuary, a ‘bone house’ as the German word translates to. This then creates a problem; how do you continue to remember the dead? Graves have a gravestone or similar marker, but the mass of bones in many ossuaries renders this impractical. The vast majority of ossuaries simply ignore the problem, piling bone upon bone and stripping the dead of their identity in one final act of flensing. Death eventually strips away everything, this process seems to say, even the memory of you in the world.

Hallstatt Beinhaus

In Hallstatt, however, the dead have become their own memorials with names and dates inscribed on the bone itself. Over time the text became ornate inscriptions whilst symbolic images were added to honour a loved one or remind posterity of their abilities. As the tradition developed, and the artistic symbolism was formalised by persistent usage, then skull-decoration slowly became less a side-effect of the ossuary process and more a reason for its existence.

This symbolic consistency, aside from being aesthetically pleasing, acts as a kind of census of the dead, giving us an interesting insight into inequalities that persist even in death.

There are far more skulls decorated with laurel wreaths than there are flower garlands, for instance. Why is this? Appropriately, when considering the implications of death, it is a question of longevity. A man’s skull would traditionally be painted with a laurel wreath, the laurel wreath long having represented victory and the “manly” qualities that lead to victory, whereas a woman’s skull would feature flowers and other images of beauty. Wives, however, often outlive husbands as women tend to live longer than men. It would be the wives, therefore, who’d be in a position to organise and pay for the painting of their spouse’s skull (death having always been a lucrative event for the artisan). However, once the wife herself dies then she would need to rely on her children, or friends if she had no living children, to organise the skull painting. This is perhaps a less certain prospect than that which decorum demands of a wife, and it shows; two thirds of the skulls in the Hallstatt beinhaus are male, resting on their laurels whilst the women’s bouquets withered and faded long ago.

Hallstatt Beinhaus

This is not an issue that’s reserved for Hallstatt, nor for other ossuaries around the world. The public memory of women is vastly over-written by that of men. In my home town of Edinburgh, for example, there are more statues of named animals (two dogs and one bear) than there are of named women (two statues, both of Queen Victoria). The single statue of an unnamed woman, Anne Davidson’s memorial for the victims of Apartheid, is outnumbered by the two giraffes outside the entertainment complex of the Omni Centre. The statue of ‘Everyman’, the incarnation of public will that stands outside the city’s council headquarters, is, with almost tedious inevitability, a man.

African Woman and Child, Anne Davidson (1986)

African Woman and Child, Anne Davidson (1986)

This points to a number of issues but, most importantly, it tells us that women, whilst no doubt being privately remembered, have their public existences slowly erased post-mortem.

So, what is to be done? It’s possible to petition local authorities to erect statues in a more equitable manner, focusing on female pioneers and notables. That’s a very valid, worthwhile course of action. Yet there is another…

As I stood in that cold, stone-lined room with the massed ranks of dead, empty eye sockets staring back at me I realised one thing. They were utterly silent. People say that the dead speak to us, but they do not. It is we, the living, who put words in their dust-choked mouths. For all their beauty, their resplendent serenity, the painted skulls of Hallstatt reminded me that only the living have a voice, quiet though it may some times be.

It is up to you to make your living voice loud because in death you will be silenced.

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