St. Vitus Cathedral in the Course of Centuries

An account on the gradual construction of the Prague Ss. Vitus, Wenceslas and Adalbert Cathedral from its foundation by king John of Luxembourgh till its completion in the late 19th century is brought to you by courtesy of prof. Jan Royt.
Published: 14. 5. 2011 10:00

In St Vitus' Cathedral, the most extensive and in its significance the most important provincial cathedral, were buried many Czech Kings and patron saints of the Czech lands. Its history goes back to the first half of the 10th century when Prince Wenceslas (Václav) had built in the midst of the fortifications the first Christian sanctuary, consecrated to St Vitus. The rotunda with four apses was probably intended as a Bishop's Cathedral, expressing the unity of the state and church guided from this spot. At the end of the 11th century Prince Spytihněv began the building of a new triple-naved Romanesque basilica, connected in type to the German cathedrals of the 11th century. There were also transferred to it the graves of the "inheritors of the Czech lands", St Wenceslas and St Adalbert. The church was consecrated in 1096, a year after the death of Spytihněv's successor, the first Czech King Vratislav. At the beginning of the 13th century the basilica was extended by a new capitular ambit, reconstructed once again around the year 1300.

The new concept of Prague and Prague Castle as the centre of Czech statehood was put forward before the middle of the 14th century by the Czech King and later Roman Emperor, Charles IV. Init St Vitus' Cathedral received a new and richer ideological programme which reflected Charles' ambitions for power. On the ground floor of the Cathedral places were found for the graves of Charles' forebears in the place of honour in a special chapel is the grave of St Wenceslas, transferred from the old basilica; in the choir chapels, placed radially around the main altar, are the gravestones of Czech Princes and Czech Kings, originally also from the old basilica; in the altars of the chapels were preserved the remains of the Czech patrons St Vitus and St Sigismund; in the church was also buried a fourth provincial patron, St Adalbert; under the paving of the choir ambit Charles had the bodies of 14 Prague Bishops placed. The ground floor was, then, dedicated to memories of the past.

He dedicated the first floor of the building to the present - in the pillars of the triforium gallery he had carved the busts of his contemporaries who played the greatest part in the building of the cathedral - on the central pillar is the bust of the Emperor himself and his son Wenceslas IV with all the wives and other members of the royal family, depicted here are representatives of the intellectual aristocracy, represented by the Prague Archbishops, and room was also found for the two builders of St Vitus' Cathedral, Matthias of Arras and Peter Parler from Swabian Gmünd, and the directors of the construction of the Cathedral (magister fabricae). On the outer side of the triforium we find the busts of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints whose names were emphatically inscribed in the history of Christianity in the Czech Lands: St Wenceslas, St Adalbert, St Ludmila, St Procopius, St Vitus, St Sigismund, St Cyril and St Methodius. By this clear and logical programme Charles IV emphasised the state-representative nature of the building.

The project of the Cathedral was elaborated after the pattern of some of the French cathedrals by its first builder, Matthias of Arras, whom Charles IV invited from the Papal Court in Avignon. He began the building in 1344 and continued until his death in 1352. The building works under the leadership of Matthiass completed the apse of the cathedral, i. e. eight and a half chapels and the appropriate part of the cathedral gallery. In 1356 Peter Parler was invited by Charles IV and until his death in 1399 he completed the remaining choir chapels and the passage in the gallery, built the triforium and the window wall of the apse. In 1385 he completed the arch of the apse and began the construction of the lower part of the main tower. Parler's workshop also participated in the relief decoration of the cathedral. The tower was probably completed by the sons of Peter Parler (the helmit is the result of Renaissance reconstructions).

The building of the cathedral was stopped by the Hussite Wars. Numerous attempts to complete it in the 16th (repaired after a big fire in 1541) and 17th centuries were never successful. Only the Union for the Completion of St Vitus' Cathedral, established in 1859, brought the construction to its present state. The foundation stone for the completion of St Vitus' Cathedral was laid in 1873. Work was done according to the project of Josef Mocker, who organised the building work up to 1899. After him the management of the building work was undertaken by Kamil Hilbert, who completed it. The Cathedral was finally consecrated in 1929 by Bishop Antonín Podlaha.

The Cathedral of St Vitus has three naves with an extended transverse nave ending in a high Presbytery with a wreath of choir chapels. The West facade, built in historical Gothic style, is dominated by the two towers. The interior of the Cathedral opens on the West through three portals, the relief decoration of which was carried out in the years 1927-29 by the Czech sculptor Otakar Španiel (on the central doors are scenes from the history of the building of the cathedral, on the side doors reliefs from the legends of St Wenceslas and St Adalbert). The main nave, built by Josef Mocker, is based in its articulation on Parler's ideas. From the Westit is lit by a circular window with a picture of the Creation of the World from 1928. The right side nave is connected to the Parler part on the site of the present Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre (the Hazmburk Chapel), situated beneath the Great Tower of the Cathedral. It was founded by Peter Parler in 1396 and is called after the Archbishop Zbyněk Zajíc of Hazmburk. The external walls of the Chapel, like the entire interior of the Cathedral, provide places for Renaissance and Baroque tombstones. In front of the South wing of the transverse nave is built in the great tower in the belfry of which there are several bells. The largest of these is the bell named Sigismund, the work of Tomáš Jaroš of Brno (1549).

Behind the tower is the space of the South arm of the transverse nave from the second half of the 19th century. It is encroached on from the East by the mass of the Chapel of St Wenceslas, built by Peter Parler in the years 1362-67 on the spot on which there stood from the 10th century the South apse of the Wenceslas St Vitus' Rotunda. The Chapel belongs both architecturally and in decoration among the master works of Medieval art. The lower part of the walls is set with Bohemian semi-precious stones. The paintings in this part depict scenes of Christ's Suffering and are the work of an unknown artist from the years 1372-73. Above the altar of the Chapel the cycle ends in Calvary. On either side of the Calvary is a portrait of Emperor Charles IV with his fourth wife, Elisabeth of Pomožany. The altar and the Gothic tomb with relief decoration date from the end of the 14th century.

The painting of the Chapel continues above the windowsill level with a Renaissance cycle by the Master of the Litomëfice Altar with scenes from the life of St Wenceslas. Above the altar two painted angels form the background for a limestone statue of St Wenceslas by Henry Parler from 1373. Above the statue are painted the figures of Vladislav Jagello and his wife, who had the Chapel renovated (the work of the Master of the Litomërice Altar). Beside the altar is the stone tombstone of St Wenceslas from the 14th century, renovated by Kamil Hilbert in the years 1912-13. In the glazed front part was situated the silver reliquary bust of St Wenceslas from the 15th century (today in the Treasury of Prague Castle). Beneath the window stands a gilded iron tower-shaped reliquary from the 14th century. In the opposite corner by the entrance is a Renaissance bronze candelabra with the statue of St Wenceslas, made by the Nuremburg founder Hans Vischer in 1532. Through the little portal in the wall under the window we would enter the Coronation Chamber in which are deposited the Crown Jewels of the Czech Lands - the St Wenceslas Crown (1346), the Coronation Cross (after 1354) and the Orb and Sceptre (Rudolfine work from the second half of the 16th century).

In front of the pillar opposite the exit from the Chapel one of the greatest Czech Baroque sculptors, Matyáš Bernard Braun, created in 1723 the Memorial of Count Leopold Šlik. The irregularly planned Parler building continues in an Easterly direction with the smaller Chapel of St Andrew (the Martinitz Chapel). From the next chapel, that of the Holy Rood, one enters by means of a narrow staircase the excavations of the foundations of the St Vitus Churches and the Romanesque Chapter. We can also visit the Royal Crypt with the sarcophagi of Charles IV, George f Podëbrady, Rudolf II and other Czech Kings and Queens. Beside the Chapel of the Holy Rood is the anteroom of the Cathedral, accessible from outside through a Gothic portal with oaken Renaissance doors. Into the upper part of the anteroom is built the Royal Oratory from 1493, decorated with motifs of dry branches and with emblems on the rails, probably the work of Benedikt Ried. In the following Chapel of St Mary Magdalene (the Wallenstein Chapel) are buried both the builders of the Cathedral, Peter Parler and Matthias of Arras.

The first of the circlet of choir chapels is the Chapel of St John of Nepomuck (St Erhard and Otylie or the Vlašim Chapel), called after the Archbishop Jan Ocko of Vlašim who was buried here in 1380. His marble tombstone is the work of the Parler workshop. The glazed case in the altar contains a lead coffin with the remains of St Adalbert. In the gallery in front of the chapel we find the monumental silver tombstone of St John of Nepomuck from the years 1733-36. It was designed by the Viennese architect Josef Emanuel Fischer of Erlach and the model was prepared by sculptor Antonio Corradini.

At the sides of the following Chapel of the Holy Relics (the Saxon or Šternberk Chapel) are two stone tombstones - of Přemysl Otakar I and Piemysl Otakar II - with the recumbent figures of the Kings. Charles IV had them made in the Parler workshop in the seventies of the 14th century when the royal remains were transferred from the old basilica. The first of them was made by Peter Parler himself in 1377.

On the axis of the apse of the Cathedral lies the Chapel of Our Lady, formerly also known as the Chapel of the Holy Trinity or the Imperial Chapel, which originated at the direct instigation of Charles IV. At the sides are the Gothic tombs of Břetislav I and wife Jitka and of Spytihněv II, all the work of the Parler St Vitus workshop. In the passage in front of the chapel we find the Altar of St Vitus with the saint's relics. The first chapel on the North wall of the Choir was founded by Archbishop Arnošt of Pardubice in 1352. Today it is dedicated to St John the Bap tist. At the sides are again Gothic tombs from the Parler workshop - those of Břetislav II and Bořivoj II. In this chapel there is a precious work of Medieval craftsmanship - the foot of the so called Jerusalem Candelabra from the first half of the 12th century. The Archbishop's (Pernstein) Chapel provides room for the note worthy tomb of Vratislav of Pernstein, Supreme Chancellor of Rudolf II, by the Dutch architect Vredeman de Vries. In the passage opposite the chapel there was placed in 1904 a supreme work by the most important sculptor of Czech birth in the 19th century, Josef Václav Myslbek - a bronze statue of the kneeling Cardinal Bedřich Schwarzenberg.

The next chapel, consecrated to St Anna, neighbours on the Old Sacristy (St Michael's Chapel). The area of the Sacristy, a masterly work by Peter Parler, is vaulted by two groined fields to a central pillar. The rear field ends in a suspended vault coping stone. On the North side of the Cathedral the part built by Peter Parler ends with the St Sigismund (Černín) Chapel. It is formed by two square vault fields. It contains the relics of St Sigismund which were brought to Prague in 1365 by Charles IV. The West wall is decorated by Renaissance wall paintings with scenes from the life of St Sigismund. The altar, with the coffin and statue of St Sigismund, was designed by the Czech Baroque architect František Maxmilián Kanka in 1720.

The centre of the main nave in front of the Choir is taken up by the outstanding Royal Mausoleum by the Dutchman Alexander Collin (1564-89). It has rich figural decoration in the shape of the statue of Salvatorius and the recumbent figures of Ferdinand I, his wife Anna Jagello and his son Maxmilian II. Behind the Mausoleum in the direction of the West facade of the Cathedral there stood until the start of Mocker's completion of the building (1879) the Renaissance Chapel of St Adalbert. The saint's grave was established here by Charles IV in the second half of the 14th century. In the North arm of the transverse nave is a Renaissance Choir (transferred in 1924), built according to the plans of Bonifác Wohlmut. Beneath it is the Chapel of the St Vitus Chapter. Beside the Choir is the New Sacristy, against the outer wall of which is a large wooden altar with a crucifix (1899), the work of one of the most notable Czech sculptors of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, František Bílek. In the Archbishops' Chapel next to it are buried the last Prague Archbishops and with them the consecrating Prague Bishop Dr. Antonín Podlaha, who played a considerable part in the completion of the Cathedral. The window was made according to the design of Alphonse Mucha in 1931. In the Schwarzenberk Chapel it is worth noting the Late Gothic triptych from the beginning of the 16th century. In the last chapel before the West facade of the Cathedral, in the Chapel of the Bartoňs of Dobenín, is a North Italian altar from the 14th century.

Photography from the Cathedral from the papal visit of Benedict XVI. here.