Mummies of Vác
The exhibit in Vac (Vác), Hungary is the result of a mummy bonanza discovered during a routine restoration of the town’s Dominican church. In 1994 workers discovered a secret crypt, bricked up for over 200 years. Inside, there were 265 hand-painted coffins, one on top of the other, in order of size. Inside, the occupants had naturally mummified, due to perfect conditions of temperature and aridity.
It wasn’t simply their bodies that were so well-preserved. Everything from the rosaries to the handmade stockings on their feet was equally intact. This offers a gold mine for ethnographers on the funerary customs and everyday life of 18th-century Hungarian villages.
There was something there for doctors as well: traces of ancient tuberculosis. An Australian surgeon, Dr. Mark Spigelman, has devoted years to studying the bacteria found in one mummy in particular. The information gleaned from this ancient DNA could give information that will help fight tuberculosis.
The real delight of the mummies exhibited in Vac, Hungary isn’t the shriveled bodies and stretched skin, it's the coffins themselves. A huge choice of the coffins on display, many stacked on top of each other in the same formation they had been found in.
Each coffin had been lovingly hand-painted with crucifixes, flowers, quotations, bible verses, angels, skull and crossbones, hourglasses, and Memento Mori inscriptions.
No coffin is a repeat of another. The variety of colors, decorations, motif, and even language (some in German, some Hungarian, some Latin) is simply incredible. The coffins seem to be painted with an almost joyous hand, celebrating the life of the deceased. One coffin, belonging to a child, has paintings of bones, skulls and a miner’s pick and shovel. Each coffin has a personalized touch, applied with great thought and care.
The artifacts from the church crypt are on display at the Memento Mori Museum next to the church on the square.
One can read Memento Mori as a dark warning: Don’t forget that you will die. But in the art of these beautiful coffins, it's read in a very different way.