The Builders of St Vitus' Cathedral

12-11-2003

Hello and welcome to Czechs in History. In today's edition: a look at Prague's most distinctive landmark St Vitus' Cathedral, ever visible above the city's Little Quarter, its Gothic and Neo-Gothic spires reaching above the Prague Castle, its most precious jewel and centrepiece. We look at how it was commissioned and constructed and how it survived times of turmoil and war. This site for coronations and final resting place for saints and kings of Bohemia - a cathedral unparalleled in importance in the Czech lands.

The Foundation Stone

Charles IVCharles IV The story of St Vitus' Cathedral stretches back 659 years, when the construction of the new cathedral began on the site of two earlier churches - a rotunda and a Romanesque basilica - within the vicinity of the Prague Castle. The first foundation stone for the new church was laid by King John of Luxembourg, together with his sons John and Charles on the 21st of November 1344 - the same year Prague was successfully given an archdiocese. A worthy cathedral was of the utmost necessity. But it would not be John but one of his sons, crowned Charles IV two years later, who would provide the project with extensive funding and support. Like the founding of Prague University, the construction of the Stone Bridge, and extensive design and construction of Prague's New Town, it was one of the major projects that would come to define Charles IV's reign - the reign of an unparalleled and enlightened monarch who would put the Czech kingdom on the map. Not surprisingly, because Charles IV had himself been raised and educated in France, he commissioned a master from Avignon to oversee the cathedral's construction: Master builder Mathew of Arras.

Mathew 's contribution and the arrival of Peter Parler

Mathew of Arras designed the first and oldest part of St Vitus' Cathedral along the lines of the French Gothic style typical for the 14th century. The eastern side is formed by a pattern of small interlocked chapels that form the ambulatory. However, how the exact design in construction was expected to continue under Mathew we can only speculate, since the master died unexpectedly in 1352. Construction was handed over to another, Swabian builder Peter Parler, just 23-years-old at the time. Yet, Parler, among the most innovative of his day, would have a profound influence on the overall cathedral's design. His are the powerful flying buttresses that sweep up by the cathedral's eastern end, towering over Mathew's original design, flanking the exterior nave and supporting a truly magnificent vault. Inside, the vault seems to rise impossibly overhead over the choir, the ceiling one of intricate Gothic tracery, fine but strong ribbing those criss-crosses the length of the church. One can only be humbled looking up, under the awesome span of the cathedral ceiling, staring at the tall stained-glass windows at the church's end, filtering dim and powdery light. Visitors murmur softly in acknowledgement and quiet awe.

St Wenceslas' chapel and the Golden Portal

Part of Parler's work was also designing and constructing a magnificent entrance to the cathedral, as well as a chapel that would house the remains of Czech patron saint St Wenceslas. The entrance, the three-arched Golden Portal, as it is known, features a simply amazing exterior mosaic of The Last Judgement that was recently completely restored, showing Christ as judge, with six Czech saints portrayed piously on their knees below. On the left we see the resurrected and the saved rising from their tombs, pale-skinned and bare, while on the right the damned are pushed slowly to Hell, where tusked blue devils lead the way to a black exit that emits lashing flame. The mosaic was the work of Venetian artisans and was completed in 1367. This entrance was used by kings and paupers alike, right up until the 19th century.

Also finished in 1367 was an extraordinary shrine to the Czech kingdom's patron saint, St Wenceslas, who had been murdered by his brother Boleslav. The chapel houses not only a tomb containing the saint's mortal remains, it also houses incredible riches: walls with inlaid gem stones and gilded stucco, wall paintings showing Christ's passion. The tomb itself is gilded. All in Wenceslas' honour. It is said that in his day Charles IV was a great devotee of the saint. Even the bronze ring on the chapel's north portal was believed to have been the one Wenceslas grasped as he was murdered at the hands of his brother.

The end of greater construction, periods of turmoil

Peter Parler died in 1399 but work on the cathedral was continued by his sons, themselves long-time members of the building lodge. It was on their watch that the cathedral's high tower was raised. 1419 marked the end of construction on St Vitus' for the time being and the years that followed saw turmoil spread throughout the Czech kingdom as the Hussite movement caught hold and spread through the country like wildfire. In 1421 the cathedral was sacked by Hussites reviling what they saw as displays of opulence. Though it would eventually be restored the cathedral would be plundered again, at the start of the Thirty Year's War a full two hundred years later. It was only in the mid 17th century that St Vitus' would see significant activity again - in the form of rich Baroque design such as the adding of the copper cap rising from the Renaissance tower, the adding of gilded altars and interiors, and a royal mausoleum.

Full circle

Major changes to St Vitus' Cathedral only once again began to take shape in the mid-19th century when a union for the church's completion was founded and plans drawn-up. What was proposed was a radical solution that would see two twin towers completed at the church's western side, flanking what would become the cathedral's new entrance and prolonging the cathedral's nave. That face, which one sees when entering the 3rd courtyard of the Prague Castle, is what most Prague tourists are first awed by today, as they stare up at rising Neo-Gothic spires. Central is the enormous and round Rose Window, designed by Frantisek Kysela in the mid 1920s. It is not without irony that the newest additions are among the most satisfying of the complete structure - on the other hand they are just a beginning. A gateway to the tens of thousands of secrets the cathedral houses created by the hands of builders we have not had enough time to name here. Icons, artefacts, hidden corners, ancient relics, winding stairways, the shadow of screaming gargoyles and the crypt of kings under the cathedral containing the remains of Charles IV himself: those secrets - and more - you'll have to discover on your own.

12-11-2003