Tucked away in the highlands, far from the main roads in the forests between Bohemia and Moravia, lies the town of Žďár nad Sázavou. It is now an industrial town spotted with ugly prefab high-rises but on its northern edge, it boasts one of the gems of Baroque architecture, the UNESCO-listed church at Zelená Hora, as well as an ancient monastery that once gave rise to the whole town.
It’s all in the name. When Cistercian monks first arrived in the thick forests in the highlands in the 13th century, they first had to make room for their new monastery. The name Žďár refers to this technique of slashing and burning the forests, and the Sázava is a river that runs though the area.
But the monks left centuries ago and today, Žďár is mainly an industrial town that has little to offer to visitors who mostly pass through here on their way to enjoy the natural beauties of the highlands. But on the town’s northern edge, two sites witness the town’s former glory – the monastery and the church of St John of Nepomuk on the nearby hill.
More than two centuries ago, the monastery was turned into a chateau which now several museums, a school, and a local fire brigade. Eva Losenická took me around.
“The monastery was founded in 1252, and it was built in the traditional Cistercian architecture. Situated on the border between Bohemia and Moravia, it was one of the most important centres of culture and education.”
The Cistercian monks stayed in Žďár for half a millennium before the enlightened Emperor Joseph II abolished it, like many other institutions of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the Austrian Empire. But just before that happened, the abbot had the great idea of inviting one of the most significant architects of the time to give the monastery a new look.
“In 1784, the monastery was dissolved and the premises became a chateau. Today, it belongs to the aristocratic family Kinský. During the Baroque period in the 18th century, the monastery was headed by Abbot Václav Vejmluva. He invited the talented and important architect Jan Blažej Santini Aichl, who reconstructed the premises in the Baroque style.
The most important building Santini’s work is the Pilgrimage church of St John of Nepomuk at Zelená Hora, which was included in the UNESCO list of world heritage in 1994.”
Jan Blažej Santini is an extraordinary figure of the Czech Baroque. His grandfather came to Prague from the Italian part of Tyrol in the early 17th century. Santini was born with a physical handicap; parts of his body were paralyzed. But that didn’t prevent him from travelling throughout Europe in his youth; in Italy where he saw the work of the radical Baroque architect Francesco Borromini that had a profound impact on him.
His collaboration with the Cistercian abbot in Ždár, which lasted for 17 years until his death in 1723, gave the monastery and the surrounding premises a completely new look. He began with renovating the main church. Eva Losenická again.
“The convent church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary was the main building in the monastery complex. The architect rebuilt the Gothic church in the Baroque style, and the building was recently renovated according to Santini’s original plans.”
Santini’s major work in Ždár is on top of a nearby hill, called Zelená Hora. The church of St John of Nepomuk was built even before John of Nepomuk was canonized. The impulse came in 1719, when his tomb was opened and a piece of a red tissue that fell out of his skull was believed to be his incorruptible tongue. Marie Dubová is one of the guides.
“The church itself was built in the shape of a five-pointed star; it has five entrances, five chapels and five altars. The original floor tiles are pentagonal too. The pulpit depicts John of Nepomuk ascending to Heaven, carried by five large angels and three small ones; the digits encode the age at which of John of Nepomuk died as a martyr.”
Santini allegedly worked on the unusual design together with the abbot, Václav Vejmluva. The complex symbolism of the building abounds with references to the saint, and employs Santini’s unique mix of the two architectural styles – Gothic and Baroque.
“Santini referred to the Middle Ages when Christianity was at its height. So this particular style had a historicizing character. But he also reconstructed many buildings; during the Hussite wars, many churches were destroyed so he was very familiar with the Gothic style to which he applied Baroque. But Zelená Hora was built from scratch and he used both of these styles that in fact match the story of St John of Nepomuk.”
Joseph II’s move against the Catholic Church in the 1780s nearly meant an end for the pilgrimage church of St John the Nepomuk, if it wasn’t for one of the former monks who made the preservation of the church his personal mission.
“The roof was destroyed by fire in 1784. Also, Emperor Joseph II abolished the monastery at about the same time, together with this church. It was very difficult to renovate it because no one was interested in running it.
“But one of the former monks, named Bonifác Procházka, began reconstructing the church but was only granted permission on condition that a cemetery will be established here. Until then, the whole area was designed for the pilgrims.”
The cemetery, including the graves of several Red Army soldiers who died during the town’s liberation in 1945, is now being removed to a new site not far from the church. Several times a year, the church is the destination of hundreds of Catholic pilgrims – but the enigmatic building also attracts those who seek for the truth beyond.
“Zelená Hora is very popular with all sorts of seekers of the arcane. Many people come here looking for various things – natural powers, even the Holy Grail. I don’t think they ever found anything but I saw people with divining rods that were moving real fast, so I guess there is some sort of power here.”
The Pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk at Zelená Hora is now run by the National Heritage Institute; it was confiscated by the state in the 1950s, just like the chateau below it. Unlike the church, however, the chateau along with forests, fields and ponds was in the early 1990s returned to its previous owners – the aristocratic Kinský family.
Radoslav Kinský, who got the family business in Žďár going again, died two years ago, and the large estate is now managed by his son, French-born Constantin Kinský.
“The first big task was to put it back together because the communist regime had cleverly broken it into pieces and made sure the estate was managed inconsistently by different institutions. We had to put it back, and I mean not only the assets but also the people, we put them together and gave them a sense that they are part of an estate that needed to be managed consistently; a place that everybody could benefit from.”
The Kinskýs had to overcome certain mistrust on the side of the local people but they soon realized that the family had its roots there and wants to continue in the work of their forefathers.
“Lidi jsou lidi, as they say here – we are just people. Everywhere you encounter a wide range of emotions and characters around yourself. I would say that people who had been through the communist and Nazi experience, they know how hard it was on everybody and are delighted to contribute to the revival of a place they love as much as we do, be it beautiful building, or a beautiful forest or a lake.”
“We are romantic idiots and we are attached to it for whatever romantic idiotic reasons, and we’ll continue to do that. The purpose is not to turn it into a profit centre; that’s not going to happen, that’s just impossible. The idea is to make more and more a living place.
“If history and culture is not alive, it’s not worth it and it doesn’t survive. So the idea is to turn it into a living place, hopefully without having to invest too much in it.
We are already doing many things, there are the fire fighters, we have concerts and exhibitions; the annual congress of the Czech Immunology Association is held here, and so on. So there are many different things to attract people and make them enjoy life in the highlands.”
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