How sad is it that I haven’t posted a travel log on Kicking Back the Pebbles for so many years? Partly due to the pandemic and partly due to the personal whirlwind that we’ve been through, as a family, in the past quinquennium, this travel blog hasn’t seen any fun in quite a while—and I kid you not, I’m still weeping over my long-lost ticket reservations to Rome in March 2020, before all hell broke loose.
Currently, however, I’m going through all of my unpublished material from our travels to the EU and Greece in 2018 & 2019 and will try to sort things out for a series of new posts, hoping to inspire many new future adventures. So, without further ado, I give thee Prague.
Prague’s Architectural Confluence
Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic and home to over 1.3 million people. It is one of the best-preserved capitals in all of Europe as it miraculously survived the bombs of WWII that hammered down many major European cities at the time, and much of its historic center looks the same way it did hundreds of years ago. It is also one of those rare examples of a city featuring buildings from almost every architectural age, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo.
Prague Highlights – from the New to the Old Town:
The Old Town
The Church of Mother of God before Týn (Kostel Matky Boží před Týnem)
In the 11th century, a Romanesque church occupied the Old Town Square to accommodate foreign merchants coming to the nearby Týn Courtyard marketplace. An early Gothic church replaced it in 1256, and in the 14th century, construction of the present church began under the influences of Matthias of Arras and Peter Parler. By the beginning of the 15th century, construction was almost complete; only the towers, the gable wall, and the roof were missing.
Hussites controlled the church for two centuries, one of them being John of Rokycan, the future archbishop of Prague, who became vicar in 1427. The building was completed in the 1450s, while the gable wall and northern tower were finished shortly after, during the reign of George of Poděbrady (1453–1471). As a tribute, the gable wall featured his sculpture below a vast golden chalice, the symbol of the Hussites. The southern tower was not completed until 1511, under architect Matěj Rejsek.
The lost Battle of White Mountain (1620) ushered in the era of Counter-Reformation (also known as Catholic Reformation or Catholic Revival). Thus, in 1626 a sculpture of the Virgin Mary replaced Poděbrady’s “heretic” statue and featured a giant halo made from melting down the golden chalice. Unfortunately, in 1679, a lightning bolt struck the church, and the subsequent fire heavily damaged its vault, which was replaced later by a lower Baroque vault. More renovations occurred between 1876 and 1895, but extensive exterior works reversed most of them between 1973–95.
[all info from Wikipedia]
Charles Bridge (Karlův most)
Charles Bridge (in Czech: Karlův most) is a medieval stone arch bridge that crosses the Vltava River in Prague. Its construction started in 1357 under King Charles IV and finished in the early 15th century. The bridge replaced the old Judith Bridge (built in 1158-72), which suffered extreme damage from a flood in 1342. As the only means of crossing the Vltava River until 1841, Charles Bridge was the most important connection between Prague Castle and the city’s Old Town and adjacent areas, making Prague a valuable trade route between Eastern and Western Europe.
Charles Bridge is 516 m/1,693 ft long and nearly 10 m/33 ft wide. It features 16 arches shielded by ice guards. Three bridge towers protect it, two on the Lesser Quarter side (including the Malá Strana Bridge Tower) and one on the Old Town side (the Old Town Bridge Tower).
The bridge is currently undergoing a twenty-year process of structural inspections, restoration, and repairs. It started in late 2019, and the estimated cost is 45–60 million CZK/1.9–2.6 million $.
The Bridge Statues
A continuous alley of 30 baroque statues and statuaries decorates Charles Bridge. Erected between 1683 and 1714, they depict various saints and patrons venerated back then. The most prominent Bohemian sculptors of the time, like Matthias Braun, Jan Brokoff, and his sons Michael Joseph and Ferdinand Maxmilian, decorated the bridge. Among the most notable are the statuaries of St. Luthgard, the Holy Crucifix & Calvary, and John of Nepomuk. Knight Bruncvík’s statue is also famous, although erected some 200 years later, and not resting on the main avenue. From 1965 onwards, replicas gradually replaced all statues, and the originals rest in the Lapidarium of the National Museum.
[all info from Wikipedia]
The Holy Trinity Column
The Holly Trinity Column is on Malostranské Square, in front of St. Nicholas Church in Lesser Town (not to be confused with the St. Nicholas of Old Town Square). It was built in 1715 to commemorate the end of the plague epidemic that hit Prague in 1713-14 by sculptor František Herstorfer and designed by Giovanni Battista Alliprandi. The column is 20m high and decorated with a statue of the Holy Trinity and the Czech patron saints. Three fountains around the column symbolize the sources of life, mercy, and salvation.
St. Vitus Cathedral
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Saints Vitus, Wenceslaus, and Adalbert (in Czech: Metropolitní katedrála svatého Víta, Václava a Vojtěcha) is a Roman Catholic metropolitan cathedral and the seat of the Archbishop of Prague. Until 1997, the cathedral was only dedicated to Saint Vitus and is still commonly named St. Vitus Cathedral. It is a prominent example of Gothic architecture, located within Prague Castle and containing the tombs of many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman emperors. Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, in 930 founded the first church an early Romanesque rotunda.
A holy relic – the arm of St. Vitus, which Wenceslaus had acquired from Emperor Henry I – determined its patron saint. It is also possible that Wenceslaus, wanting to convert his subjects to Christianity more easily, chose a saint whose name (Svatý Vít in Czech) sounds very much like the name of the Slavic solar deity Svantevit.
In 1060, Prince Spytihněv II decided the newly-founded bishopric of Prague needed a more spacious temple since the rotunda church was too small to accommodate the faithful. He commissioned a Romanesque triple-aisled basilica in its place, with two choir areas and two towers connected to the western transept. The southern apse of the rotunda was incorporated into the eastern transept of the new church because it housed the tomb of St. Wenceslaus, who had by then become the patron saint of the Czech princes. The bishop’s mansion was also built to the south (and considerably extended in the mid-12th century).
The Gothic Cathedral: Matthias of Arras
Construction of the present-day Gothic cathedral began on November 21st, 1344, when the seat of Prague became an archbishopric. King John of Bohemia laid its foundation stone. Its patrons were Archbishop Arnost of Pardubice and Charles IV, King of Bohemia and a soon-to-be Holy Roman Emperor. Charles intended the new cathedral to be a coronation church, family crypt, treasury for the kingdom’s precious relics, and the final resting place and pilgrimage site of St. Wenceslaus. The first master builder was a Frenchman, Matthias of Arras, summoned from the Papal Palace in Avignon. He designed the overall layout of the building in French Gothic style: a triple-naved basilica with flying buttresses, a short transept, a five-bayed choir, and a decagon apse with an ambulatory and radiating chapels. He lived to build only the easternmost parts of the choir area—the arcades and the ambulatory.
The Gothic Cathedral: Peter Parler
After Matthias died in 1352, 23-year-old Peter Parler assumed control of the cathedral workshop as a master builder. He was the son of the architect of the Holly Cross Minster/Heilig-Kreuz-Münster in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany. Parler initially worked on the plans left by his predecessor, building the sacristy on the north side of the choir and the chapel on the south. Once he completed everything Matthias had left unfinished, he continued with bold and innovative designs and unique syntheses of Gothic elements.
While Matthias was a geometer, emphasizing rigid systems of proportions and mathematical compositions in his design, Parler was a trained sculptor and woodcarver. He treated architecture as a shaping technique and played with structural forms in stone. Besides the bold vaults he designed for the choir area, the peculiarities of his work are also profound in the design of pillars (with classic, bell-shaped columns), his ingenious dome vault of the new St. Wenceslaus chapel, the undulating clerestory walls, his original window tracery (no two of his windows are the same!), and the blind tracery panels of the buttresses. His architectural sculpting can also be discerned from the corbels, the passageway lintels, and the busts on the triforium that depict faces of the royal family, saints, Prague bishops, and the two master builders, including Parler himself.
14th & 15th century
Work on the cathedral, however, proceeded slowly because the Emperor commissioned Parler with many other projects, like the construction of the new Charles Bridge and many churches throughout the country. By 1397 Parler had only finished the choir and parts of the transept.
After he died in 1399, his sons, Wenzel and Johannes, continued his work; In turn, a certain Master Petrilk, who, by all accounts, was also a member of Parler’s workshop, succeeded them. These three masters finished the transept, the great tower on the south side, and the gate connecting it to the south transept. Nicknamed the Golden Gate (because of the gilded mosaic of the Last Judgment covering the facade), it is through this portal that the kings entered the cathedral for coronation ceremonies.
Unfortunately, the entire construction halted upon the beginning of the Hussite Revolution in the first half of the 15th century. The workshop, which had been operating steadily for almost more than a century, closed down, and the cathedral’s furnishings and dozens of pictures and sculptures suffered heavily. A great fire further damaged St. Vitus in 1541.
Renaissance and Baroque
Through most of the following centuries, the cathedral stood only half-finished. A provisional wall closed the great tower and transept. Where the three-aisled nave was supposed to be, stood a timber-roofed construction, and the services were held separately from the choir. Several attempts to continue works on the cathedral were unsuccessful. In the latter half of the 15th century, King Vladislaus II commissioned the great Renaissance-Gothic architect Benedict Ried to continue. However, as soon as works began, lack of funds cut them short. Later attempts to finish the cathedral brought some Renaissance and Baroque elements into the Gothic building, most notably the Baroque spire of the south tower by Nikolaus Pacassi (1753-75) and the great organ in the northern wing of the transept.
19th & 20th century
In 1844, Václav Pešina, an energetic St. Vitus canon with Neo-Gothic architect Josef Kranner presented a program for the renovation and completion of the great cathedral at the gathering of German architects in Prague. The same year, a newly-founded society, the Union for the Completion of the Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague, pushed to repair, complete, and rid the structure of everything stylistically inimical. Josef Kranner headed the works from 1861 to 1866 by performing such repairs, removing Baroque decorations deemed unnecessary, and restoring the interior. In 1870 workers eventually laid the foundations of the new nave, and in 1873, after Kranner’s death, architect Josef Mocker assumed control of the reconstruction. He designed the west facade in a typical classic Gothic manner with two towers. After his death, the third and final architect of the restoration, Kamil Hilbert, followed the same design.
In the 1920s, the sculptor Vojtěch Sucharda worked on the facade, and the famous Czech Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha decorated the new windows in the north part of the nave. Frantisek Kysela designed the rose window from 1925 to 1927, which depicts scenes from the Biblical story of creation. By the time of St. Wenceslaus’s jubilee in 1929, St. Vitus Cathedral was finally complete, nearly 600 years after it began. And even though the entire western half of the cathedral is a Neo-Gothic addition, much of the design and elements developed by Peter Parler were used in the restoration, giving St. Vitus a harmonious, unified look.
[all info from Wikipedia]
Did you know?
“Albert Einstein lived in Prague from April 1911 through July 1912, when he occupied the chair in theoretical physics at the German University. Perhaps because of the brevity of his tenure in Prague, most of Einstein’s biographers give those 16 months short shrift. But it was a critical time in Einstein’s life both professionally and personally, not only because the appointment in Prague was his first as a full professor… It was in Prague in 1911 that Einstein resumed focused work on what would emerge four years later as the general theory of relativity.”
Giving Einstein’s Prague sojourn the full attention it merits is the aim of Einstein in Bohemia by Princeton historian Michael Gordin, published in 2020. You can find it on Amazon, and it makes for a great summer read!
[Howard, Don. “Albert Einstein’s Year in Prague.” Physics Today, vol. 73, no. 10, 2020]
*images by Athina D. Pantazatou for Kicking Back the Pebbles