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Prague's St Vitus: Old and New


Not all the ancient-looking and impressive places we visit are actually what they seem. Some are careful reconstructions after war damage; some, like Berlin's new Humboldt Forum are old facades copied for new buildings, and some, like Prague's Saint Vitus Cathedral, are both new and old because of centuries-long slowdowns in construction.

DSC05447Saint Vitus Cathedral, which is a centerpiece of Prague Castle's walled grounds, is both one of Europe's oldest and newest. Oldest, because it can trace its history and some of its stones to 930, when Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, built a church within his castle compound as he struggled to convert his subjects to Christianity. Newest, because after a 500-year gap in construction, it was finally in 1929, 999 years after its beginnings.


And that's not just some finishing touches. From the 15th century to the 19th, the choir and areas under the great green-topped spire, incorporating parts of the 930 church and a later 1060 addition, were all there were. Funds were scarce, wars were common, nearly constant, and only in 1870 did work begin on a permanent nave to replace the wood-covered hall that stood outside the building instead of a nave.

DSC05454DSC05453Like many other European cathedrals, it suffered various ravages over time. Some were religious: during a religious rebellion that scorned lavish decor the church lost much of its early artwork. And, over the years as styles changed, the original Romanesque features gave way to various Gothic and Baroque add-ons. 


In the years just before the construction of the nave from 1870 to 1929, there was a campaign to 'rid the structure of everything mutilated and stylistically inimical' to the building.' The architects hired to build the nave were instructed to stick to Gothic, although the Romanesque spire with its Baroque ornaments was allowed stay.

DSC05441DSC05440And yet, styles and taste change, and the instructions given in 1870 did not rule all the way. There's a lot of 20th century art in the building, especially the glorious and colorful windows created by Czech Art Nouveau master Alfons Mucha and his contemporary, František Kysela.


The facade, with its traditional twin towers and Gothic forms has extensive stonecarving by Vojtěch Sucharda, a sculptor, woodcarver and puppeteer, who later restored the moving figures of Prague's astronomical clock after World War II damage.


George G recognized a smaller piece of this facade, and named our One-Clue mystery this week!DSC05426

Kysela, whose work spans late Impressionism into Art Deco, won the commission for the cathedral's rose window, which depicts scenes from the biblical creation story.


Like many other cathedrals, by the way, it has some extra names. In 1997, it became, officially, the Cathedral of Saints Vitus, Wenceslaus and Adalbert, although it's always just referred to as St Vitus. Wenceslaus, whom we met at the beginning of the story, is best known these days from a Christmas carol which may or may not be based on his life; his tomb is in the church.

DSC05455DSC05448For those who like odd name facts, here's one: In Czech, all three saints have the same initial: they are Víta, Václava a Vojtěcha. And, it appears, Wenceslaus may have dedicated the original church to Vitus for a practical reason. He had become a Christian and was trying to win his subjects to his new faith. The old Czech name for the saint, Svatý Vít, is conveniently close to that of the Slavic sun god, Svantevit.

DSC05439DSC05449Saint Vitus is one of several fascinating buildings within the Prague Castle complex which also, being on the high point of the city, has fantastic views. Admission to the complex and to St Vitus is free, but tickets are required for the other buildings and tours.




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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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