I had never really been inside or had a proper look around, but I was sure the small church of St Martin in the Wall would have an interesting story, if for no other reason than its ancient appearance and peculiar name. Just off the central Národní třída is a classic Prague alleyway that’s tucked away from the shopping boulevard, neatly dividing the centuries from one another, and there you’ll find it. One of the oldest churches in the city, St Martin in the Wall is one of those relatively few landmarks whose story can transport you all the way back through the ages to the beginnings of the Czech metropolis.
In the 1100s this was not yet Prague, but one of the small villages among the fields that supplied the growing trade centre with material goods. In the middle was a chapel, a small rotunda which was eventually made into a Romanesque church and dedicated to the, even then ancient, Roman St. Martin. The village was then called Újezd svatého Martina. To find any remnant of that long lost place, you have to go down to the cellar of the church, probably in the company of its friar, Mikuláš Vymětal.
“This is the oldest architectural element left here, a Romanesque pillar. There is a tomb in what was originally in the floor, and these arches in the walls, also from the Romanesque period, go around the circumference of the old rotunda under the church here. There was a wooden ceiling here until the 1980s, when a student of theology queuing up to take communion fell through the floor and got stuck. They came and told him as he was stuck in the floor, that God apparently doesn’t want him to take the Eucharist. Theology students can be very moralistic…”
This is just one Romanesque pillar – or half of one rather – but it’s part of what I think is the most interesting thing about this church: its bizarre union of items from across the ages, many of which make absolutely no architectural sense in their modern context, like windows leading to nowhere, or the iron door in the side of the structure set two metres off the ground.
“The door there is a remnant of the time when the church was connected to an adjoining building. In 1784 the church was visited by Josef II who was making wide-ranging structural reforms in Prague. He decided it was damp, decrepit, and unhealthy and so he had it vacated. Buildings were built on to it and the whole complex was used as a storehouse, a pub, storeys were built into it and residential apartments were made upstairs, while the bottom floor was used for workshops. So the adjoining building was torn down, and the architect reconstructing the church in the early 20th century just decided to keep the door as an embellishment, even though it didn’t lead anywhere. You can see there isn’t even a hole for a doorhandle.”
All the anomalies in the walls of the church in the wall have their own stories that tell of different eras of the building’s 900-year history, like the stoned up window in the eastern facade. For some time the church had a wealthy patron from the Holec family of the 15th century who built himself a private bridge between his neighbouring home and the upstairs oratory of the church, so he could go to mass without really leaving his home. Near the bridge, Holec made the curious aesthetic decision of adding the ridiculous statue of a child making monkey faces at the passerby below – assuming it doesn’t have a more arcane explanation.
“Attached to the church was a school, and in it lived a widow with a very naughty young son. One day, they say, a religious procession was passing down the alley and a crowd of people was standing by to watch, and the boy climbed up on the roof and started making nasty faces at the priests. His mother was aghast, and when she yelled at him he stuck his tongue out at her. So she got very angry and screamed ‘you little dragon, I wish you would turn to stone’. And at that moment, it happened.”
Less clear is what was done to the little owl perched at the top of another wall around the corner to make it turn to stone. The seemingly random animal statue isn’t very noticeable and therefore apparently isn’t mentioned in any guidebooks, but it’s probably the key to the statue of the boy as well.
“I’m not sure it’s not a parrot, when you look at it more closely. But the owl is a symbol of bad fortune; it may be a commemoration of the plague, because old Prague legends say the hooting of the owl announces death. But in any case, Gothic-era sculptors always tried to express churches as representations of the entire world, and even the devil has a place in the world. So these expressions are usually found somewhere on the roof, as with gargoyles, and here we have them as statues and the faces of fools.”
Continuing around the outside of the church in this direction you come to the explanation for its full name, St. Martin in the Wall, as you look up at the 13th century tower with its 17th century belfry. When Prague’s city walls were constructed in the early 1200s, they were planned to cross the church leaving the two options of either tearing it down, or incorporating it. The city’s defensive walls were therefore built straight into the side of the building, with the church peeping out of the side, and the tower was built as a watchtower.
All of these features and many more make a beautiful organic ensemble, the likes of which aren’t to be found in too many places in Prague. There was a gothic reconstruction in 1488, other parts come from an earlier refurbishment under Charles IV, Baroque elements like the fresco above the main portal were added after a fire in 1678, others still after the modern reconstruction of 1906 – layer upon layer of austere history, literally written into the walls.
“Some things about people never change. This balcony where we’re standing was a choir, and the students, when they got bored, apparently scratched things into the sandstone window frame here. Here you can see ‘Hic est Johannes’: ‘Jack was here’. It’s probably from the 16th or 17th century when the school here was full of notoriously mischievous children. There are many complaints about them in the church chronicle. From 1522 it’s written that they were stealing pigs from the neighbours and killing and eating them, and they even killed a servant who had chased them. Another one from 1611 says they beat up a woman, and the teacher defends them by saying the woman had slapped one of them first. Then they were actually punished on one occasion: the neighbours complained that they were writing love letters to their wives. This time they argued that the women had asked for the letters themselves, but as punishment they were locked in the chicken shed for two days and the teacher was reprimanded.”
Thankfully, St Martin’s main claim to fame is not its unruly schoolchildren but its role in one of the most important movements in Czech, even European history, with the onset of the Hussite movement and the beginnings of Protestantism. For Christian reformers since the 15th century, this is one of the places that a key moment in their revolution began.
“The church is significant particularly because it is one of the four Prague churches where Hussite doctrine was first pronounced, in the autumn of 1414. Master Jan Hus was still alive, but was in prison. And it was here that Jakoubek ze Stříbra had the parson give the bread and the wine of the Eucharist to the lay people for the first time. [Before then, only the priests could receive the wine, or the blood of Christ]. And because of this act the chalice became a symbol of the Hussite reformation and of Protestantism up to today.”
Because of this act the church in the wall became a famous Hussite monument, and was spared their rampage. In fact many a rich benefactor kept it well financed until the return to Catholicism under the Hapsburgs. That is, before it was turned into a tenement-cum-public house-cum furniture workshop. Knowing the varied history of St Martin in the Wall, you can walk around it and see many other curiosities than those described here and take in a huge amount of 900 years of Czech history.
Collapse of Prague footbridge raises concerns regarding state of other bridges
Some like it hot: Czech Republic sees rise in number of household saunas
The fascinating story of Czech settlers who founded the farm town of Prague, Oklahoma
ANO leader Andrej Babiš appointed Czech prime minister
Czech wage rises continue apace, low earners seeing larger increases