Sunday, 22 February 2015

In a small chapel just outside Prague, a chandelier made from every bone in the human body hangs from a garland of skulls like the world's creepiest wind-chime. Nearby, a coat of arms features an almost comical bone bird—its wings a human hand and its neck a gnarled vertebrae—that pecks at a skull's eye socket. In each corner of the room, several thousand, maybe more, bones are tightly packed into huge bell shaped mounds.

Back in 1278, the abbot of the Sedlec monastery sprinkled some earth from Jesus' supposed burial site onto the abbey graveyard. The effect was much like the opening of a new crossrail station in a previously affordable London borough. One moment, fashionable types wouldn't be seen dead there; the next there's a trendy pub opening up with artfully stained sofas and an influx of skinny jeans. Or, in the case of the Sedlec graveyard, corpses. Suddenly, it was the place to go and die, much like Southwold only without the beach.

By the 16th century, the Black Death, or plague, had deposited so many bodies in Sedlec that there was literally no more room. So a partially-sighted monk was tasked with digging up all the bones crammed into the graveyard and stacking them up in neat little piles. The remains of 40,000 people eventually found their way into the ossuary (I like to imagine that each and everyone was moved by that one dedicated monk). Later, during the 19th century, a local family employed a wood carver to make the bones pretty. Clearly this wood carver was a distant relation of Tim Burton, and his creations were eerie and strange, and surprisingly beautiful.

Is that shameful to admit? The Black Death, after all, has to be one of history's most terrible killers, decimating huge swaths of the population over the centuries. Shouldn't the remains of all those dead invoke feelings of solemnity and sadness, not awe?

This is an issue which, as a scientist working on a killer disease, I've often wondered about. Can an infectious agent that kills millions ever be beautiful and the subject of admiration and respect, or should I have felt horror and disgust with every swirl of the culture flask, every squirt of my pipette? After all, there were days when confessing my profession to a stranger left me feeling a little like I’d just admitted to marrying a serial killer in a prison chapel.

I worked on a different type of plague to the Black Death—the White Plague, or tuberculosis. Even today, tuberculosis kills almost two million people every year. Despite this, I’ve always held a strange affection for the bacterium. There's something amazing about peering into the minuscule world of the viruses and bacteria and, like an astronomer looking out into space, feeling wonder at the complexity and elegance present in each and every tiny species.

Recently, an artist called Luke Jerram created blown glass sculptures of various killer viruses and bacteria. He didn’t make one of the Black Death bacterium, Yersinia pestis, but he did create an Ebola, Smallpox, and HIV, among others. While many people marvelled at the beauty of his art, more than one person raised the question of whether it was distasteful to admire diseases responsible for untold misery.

Perhaps a better way of looking at it is that it is the science that is beautiful. Once, we believed that the Black Death was a judgement from God or a curse from the odd lady down the road with tangled hair who talks to cats (don't we all?). Now, we can look this tiny killer in the pilli and see it for what it is—an amazing creation of nature that walks the fine line between horror and beauty. The more we understand, the less there is to fear.

When I look at the Sedlec Ossuary, I see the humanity in the careful way that the bones have been arranged, and am reminded of how fragile and fleeting life can be. I see a memorial to all the lives claimed by diseases such as the Black Death and I remember how far we’ve come since the days when the plague killed between 30 and 60% of the European population. The bones aren't beautiful because they are dead but because, once, they were alive.