The Basilica of St. Procopius in Třebíč is one of only 12 places in the Czech Republic inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. In this edition of Spotlight we’ll give you a taste of some of what makes the 12th century structure such a marvel.
St. Procopius Basilica in Třebíč was built at about the same time as the first Gothic cathedrals were reaching up into the skies of France. The vault is a borrowing from the architecture of southern France, the floor plan copies patterns from southern Germany, and the unique doorway is similar to that of a Viennese cathedral. It was this unique blending of European influences of the Romanesque and Gothic styles that led to the basilica becoming the most recent addition to the list of World Heritage Sites in the Czech Republic in 2003.
Where did the story of this, one of Europe’s grand basilicas, begin? Sometime around the year 1220, the abbot of the local monastery (itself an architectural pearl) decided to replace the original wooden chapel with what would be the largest church in Moravia. St. Procopius Basilica no longer holds that record, but it has retained the longest nave, which measures 70 meters.
One of the best and most beautiful things that the structure offered though was actually covered up and forgotten for hundreds of years, and only rediscovered in the mid-19th century, when a church chaplain was doing a bit of decorating, as local guide Pavlina Pojerová explains.
"In 1862, the chaplain was hanging a very large painting on the south wall of his room. As he was hammering in a nail, however, a part of the masonry crumbled and exposed a niche where this precious Romanesque portal had been hidden. It’s called the Porta Paradisi, or the Gate of Paradise, and its rarity is illustrated by the fact that we have only found two such items in the Czech Republic. The other is located at Tišnov (near Brno) and is called the Porta Coeli, or Heaven’s Gate. The engraved bands around each portal show plants, chasms, mountain ranges, animals, water and people of all nations. At the top in the middle, you can see an angel, which is to serve as a guardian of the basilica. The theme for the decoration of the portal was hymn of the three young men from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. The reliefs however had been badly damaged, and were only repaired in 1930 by (the eminent sculptor and puppeteer) Vojtech Sucharda."
The nave of the church is truly a place for welcoming a king. The windows in the long central space are elongated, almost looking more like the arrow slits of a Romanesque castle. The bold, bare stone interiors are preserved, allowing the individual side-altars, statues and other artistic elements to stand out all the more. The actual construction was apparently undertaken by people familiar with the techniques of southern France, which are evident for example in the unique, spiral rose windows and Romanesque styles mingled with Gothic elements.
But for all its heavenly artistry, the basilica was only used as a place of worship for about two hundred years before the town of Třebíč was destroyed – literally removed from the maps for some years - by the Hungarian troops of Matthias Corvinus.
"Matthias Corvinus stormed the city because Viktorín, the son of King George of Poděbrady and the leader of the Czech forces, had taken shelter in the city, together with the terrified inhabitants of the surrounding villages. Viktorín managed to escape, but the basilica suffered major damage. The wooden parts were burned along with the rest of the city, and the ceiling above the main area of the church collapsed, which also damaged the structural integrity of the rest of the building. Only a handful of monks remained here until 1525."
When the monks were driven away, the basilica served a colourful range of other uses, as a brewery, then a horse stable, a kitchen and laundry facilities for the local chateau. The church was not returned to its original state until the early 18th century, when the Waldstein family, which possessed the town until they were expelled after WWII, saw to its reconstruction. The man called in was none other than the masterful baroque architect František Maxmilian Kanka, who built or refurbished so many of the period’s great buildings, like the Clementinum, St Vitus Cathedral and Faust’s House.
Originally dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, it was also around this time that the church was re-consecrated to the 10th century Saint Prokop, or Procopius of Sázava, on the 500th anniversary of the hermit’s canonisation. Procopius is featured among several baroque statues with the devil, who legend has it was forced by Procopius to plough a 6-kilometre furrow with a cross.
"A local priest oversaw a second reconstruction of the church after the First World War, in 1920, and the extensive project lasted until 1935. The primary material that the Basilica is made of is local granite, found to the north of Třebíč, which is very difficult to work with. The masons who delivered the stone would mark it with their own symbols, and so you can now find marks left by around 600 different stonemasons in the walls of the church. The space is then decorated with ten red bishops’ crosses marking the places where the basilica was re-consecrated in 1704. "
Looking upwards in the basilica, it seems like the walls open up slightly towards the ceiling. This is not an illusion. For the sake of the acoustics, the walls are about a metre and a half wider at the ceiling than they are on the ground. It is an enormous structure, up to 27 metres high in the vault, and replete with wonderful objects.
Off to the side of the nave is a small but none-the-less splendorous abbot's chapel, decorated with original gothic frescos more than 700 years in age. Paintings and ornamentation completely cover the inside of the chapel. Seeing this space, one can more easily imagine what the original interior of the rest of the church would have looked like, as paintings of a similar type would have once adorned the entire basilica. Among the chapel’s motifs are portraits of St. Benedict and scenes from the life of John the apostle.
"The paintings were first covered over in 1468, and then again on many occasions after that. It wasn’t until 1932 that the frescos were rediscovered, at which time they were also cleaned and preserved. These frescos are amongst the oldest in the Czech Republic, and the second oldest in Moravia, after the Rotunda of St. Catherine in Znojmo."
In contrast with the great age of the frescos, the main alter is only from the last century, but it too is a rarity. It was made in 1930 by artists in Prague for the World Exhibition of Christian Art in Paris, and three years later was exhibited in Rome as well. Both exhibitions resulted in first prizes for the altar, and at the request of Kamil Hilbert, the well-known church architect, it was donated to St. Procopius Basilica.
The best-preserved part of the church overall is its crypt, where the ceiling is buttressed by no less than 50 columns. The capitals are decorated with wide arrays of vegetative ornaments, animals and fantastic faces, each one different from the other. The crypt is said to hide a secret passage leading to the nearby village of Sokolí. And as is often the case with mysterious underground places, there’s said to be gold there - buried treasures that the monks had to hide from the Hussites in the 15th century, including a life-size statue of Christ made from gold. In seeking treasure in the crypt though, one need look no further than the vaults, which seem a miraculous and beautiful feat of 13th century engineering. Pavlina Pojerová again:
"The vaults were made using timber supports that the architects left partially exposed. The wood is Norway spruce, which was already 120 to 150 years old at the time it was used. The timber was set in a hole willed with limewater where it was left to absorb it until it got into all of the pores in the wood, which could even take up to 80 years. Then the wood was removed and left to dry out, which turned it nearly to stone, and what was how the vaults of the crypt were made."
The crypt also provides a perfect example of one of the main things that make the church such an important work of architecture. The ribs of the vault are massive Gothic items, but the apses are almost entirely Romanesque, showing just how well the original builders were able to adapt and fuse the two artistic styles, rather than merely covering one with the other.
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