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Wolhusen Mortuary Chapel: Where Real Skulls Join a Dance of Death

Text and photographs by Michael Bukowski & Jeanne D’Angelo

If you wander the streets of Lucerne, you’ll doubtlessly cross the Spreuer Bridge at some point. It’s probably one of Switzerland’s most notable series of Totentanz (Dance of Death) paintings with 45 of the original 67 panels still intact. However, 20 kilometers outside the city, in the quiet suburb of Wolhusen, one of the most unique Dance Of Death paintings is housed in an unassuming mortuary chapel. What makes it so special is that there are actual human skulls set into the plaster of the large mural that circles around the ceiling.

Details about the Wolhusen Totentanz are hard to come by in English. From what we can gather, it was constructed in 1657 or 1661 by the Wendelin Brotherhood and painted by an unknown artist. After it was completed, it seems to have been forgotten for a century or two until Professor Dr. Rudolf Rahn was credited with “bringing it to the public’s awareness” in 1875. It was then restored three times; 1901, 1958, and lastly in 2006.

When you first approach the chapel, it looks small and quaint. Your first clue that it is something unique are the human skulls embedded in the frame of the entrance. One on each side about head height, and one at the top of the arch, loom over you like watchmen, with Swiss coins placed carefully in the empty eye sockets.

Inside, the mural is comprised of a series of figures in the classic Dance of Death motif, showing people from all walks of life (kings, bishops, musicians, and peasants) being led away by dancing skeletal figures, each of which has a real human skull set in the plaster where its head should be. The skulls are even situated to match the angle of the skeletons’ poses, with one set in the plaster face first to show the skeleton with its back turned to the viewer.

Wolhusen itself looks like a typical Swiss town, with centuries old cottages nestled next to modern storefronts and all surrounded by hills. Like most churches in Switzerland, the chapel is left unlocked and unattended. Which means, not only will you probably have the quiet chapel completely to yourself, but you may even need to turn the lights on!

To get there, take the S6 Train from Lucerne to Langenthal (approx. 20 min.) and get off at Wolhusen, the 5th stop. From the train station head east on Bahnhofstrasse until you get to the traffic circle and make a slight right onto Menznauerstrasse. Then make a left onto Kirchegasse. This will lead to you to the cemetery adjacent to St. Andreas Church, the mortuary chapel is on the hill in the back.