The secrets of St. Wenceslas' crown

09-07-2003

In today's edition of Czechs in History we will be looking more closely at the St. Wenceslas' crown, one of the objects from the currently exhibited Bohemian Coronation Jewels. The Crown was exclusively made for Charles IV, who on September 2nd 1347 was the first to be crowned King of Bohemia with it. The numerous precious stones that decorate the gold crown frame reflect the ancient crafts, trades, and beliefs of people in the Middle Ages, and recalls the coronation of the most famous of all the Bohemian kings. More than 600 years ago St. Havel's market, overcrowded today by tourists and stands with souvenirs, hosted Bohemian noble families and clergymen who came to welcome the new king. One of them left this vivid description of the coronation:

"In the year of our Lord 1347... Charles, the king of Rome came back from the Tyrol to Prague, and was welcomed with great joy by the principals, relatives, prelates and, clergymen. On the first Sunday before the feast of the Birth of Blessed Virgin Mary on September 2nd, together with his wife, Lady Blanche (de Valois), venerable Arnost, the first archbishop of Prague, merrily and festively crowned him king, and her queen of the Bohemian Kingdom. And the house for the festivities was built in the town of Prague, at St. Havel's market place, and it was decorated by upholstery and silk, and everybody was served excellently. On that day the nobility of the Bohemian Kingdom arrived, each of them according to his position, and they came on their steeds to offer their ritual rights to the new Czech king, and listened, as it was the habit, at the table. And the coronation brought happiness to the people after the period of mourning following the death of King John." (Benes Krabice z Weitmile: Kronika Prazskeho kostelu z roku 1347)

The crown that Charles IV put on his head on that very day was decorated with a total of 20 pearls and 96 precious stones. Some of them, according to the medieval Chronicle of the Church of Prague, were among the largest in the world. Charles was a great admirer of the medieval Czech patron St. Wenceslas, whom he considered his own guardian. Many things he did in his admiration, but the most important was, as the Chronicle notes, that he decided that the proper place for the crown was what he called "the saint's head," or, in other words, the gold head of the bust with St. Wenceslas' remnants kept in the dark chamber in the St. Vitus Cathedral. He imposed regulations saying that together with other Bohemian coronation jewels, the crown might be used only in the coronation of Bohemian kings, and displayed to mark extraordinary occasions.

Czech crown jewels, photo: CTK Czech crown jewels, photo: CTK More than 600 years later the Czech mineralogist Jaroslav Hyrsl started new research into the origin of the stones on the crown. While the Chronicle says that some stones were among "the most expensive in the world," he discovered the false identity of some of them. The beauty and value of the crown didn't however, diminish after this discovery. According to Mr Hyrsl, the regulations set by Charles IV did a great favour to medievalists interested in the jewelry crafts, because they prohibited any further changes to the crown, and therefore preserved its stones in their original shapes. Each of 96 stones is shaped in a different way, and each of them provide a fine example of the craft which at that time was still novelty in Europe:

"It was forbidden to change this crown, even by law by Charles IV. Since the 14th century it has stayed practically unchanged. So it's a very valuable object for study of cutting. Here on the crown we can see that there are many types of forms, from very simple pebbles, practically only drilled up to very nice symmetric stones. So there is a big difference among all those stones, and it means that in that time, in 14th century, this process was just starting in Europe."

The exact location where the jewels were drilled and faceted still remains mystery, but Mr Hyrsl thinks that at least he has found the possible provenience of the stones. They originate in southern Asia, from where they were obviously brought to Europe by traders carrying in their caravans silk, perfumes and gold along the route to the West known as the Silk Road:

Statue of Charles IVStatue of Charles IV "I found that practically all sapphires are from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, spinels are probably part from Ceylon, part from Afghanistan. This biggest sapphire, and ruby, or so called rubellite also from Afghanistan. For emeralds it's difficult to say, they're maybe from Egypt, but more probably from Pakistan or Afghanistan, so you can see that practically all stones, and even pebbles are from southern Asia, and not from Europe. Those pebbles originally value as amulets on a string, so probably they were drilled already in Sri Lanka or in India, but faceting could be in Europe, or could be there, nobody knows."

The traders had brought precious stones to Europe even before Charles IV, but as one of the wealthiest rulers in the Western world, he was one of the few able to get the best and original selection of the Asian jewels:

"He was one of the most mighty persons at that time in all Europe, and he was able for his wealthy to get so many excellent stones. Even now, in modern times, if you would have unlimited amount of money to get so good gym stones, it would be very difficult task to get this quality stones. There are very few, and it's very difficult to get them."

And finally, Charles IV wasn't only a religious admirer of St. Wenceslas, but also a person with a great interest in magic and the occult. Like other people at that time, he also believed in the symbolism and power of colours. The colour of gem stones symbolizes medieval superstition, and links religious devotion to almost pagan beliefs:

"Very big importance also was the colour of gem stones because of their symbolism. Red colour was blood of Christ, blue colour was the sky. It was the reason why they used so many big and blue sapphires and red stones which they considered probably to be rubies, but they were spinals in fact. This was very important for those people."

09-07-2003