St. Nicholas’s ceiling – The Apotheosis of St. Nicholas – comes to you courtesy of the Austrian artist, Johann Lukas Kracker. It’s one of the largest ceiling frescoes in Europe.
St. Vitus Cathedral is the Gothic pride of Prague, but, in reality, the cathedral wasn’t finished until the 1950s. With the financial support of Charles IV, King of Bohemia (later Holy Roman Emperor), the chapter of the cathedral and the Archbishop Arnost of Pardubice, work began in 1344.
The Frenchified feel comes from Matthias of Arras, the cathedral’s first architect. He died eight years into the project, leaving only the easternmost parts of the choir complete. His successor, Peter Parler, was younger and hardier. From the age of 23 to his death 47 years later, he put his heart and soul into the choir and transept.
You can see his handiwork in the bell-shaped columns, clerestory walls, the Chapel of St. Wenceslas, the original window tracery and, especially, the dynamic zigzag pattern on the choir ceiling (called Parler’s vaults or net-vaults).
And you can see him. Trained as a sculptor and woodcarver, Parler decided to throw in a fair amount of architectural sculpture. Cast your keen eyes at the triforium to discover busts of the royal family, saints, Prague bishops and the master builder himself.
Construction may have gone quicker if Charles IV hadn’t kept pulling Parler away for other projects, including the Charles Bridge. Work continued under Parler’s sons, but the Hussite War and the great fire of 1541 caused progress to come to a crashing halt.
It wasn’t until the 19th century, during the Czech National Revival, that the final push began. Areas were repaired, the interior was restored and the western door and crossing completed. Look for the touch of Prague’s early 20th century artists in the fabulous stained glass windows and outer bronze doors.
St. Vitus is the patron saint of actors, entertainers, dancers, epileptics and Bohemia. Troubled by lightning, dog bites or oversleeping? Spare a prayer for St. Vitus.
After his martyrdom in the 4th century, his fame (and bones) spread rapidly through Europe. In A.D. 925, King Henry I of Germany visited Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia, and presented him with the bones of one hand of St. Vitus. The Duke built a Romanesque rotunda in the saint’s honor, subsequently replaced by St. Vitus Cathedral.
Random historical footnote:
Thanks to the dancing moves of medieval folk during his feast day, the saint has also lent his name to St. Vitus Dance, the common term for the neurological disorder Sydenham’s chorea. Sufferers typically experience uncontrollable jerky movements in their face, hands and feet.
There are a few St. Nicholas Churches kicking around Prague – here is the one in Malá Strana (the Lesser Quarter).
The interior is pink pastry, topping even St. James Cathedral in Innsbruck. If bloodthirsty cherubim and frescoes aren’t to your taste, look for the 19th century graffiti on the railings of the second floor balcony.
Or gird your quads for a trip to the tower. You’ll get a splendid view of the city – and a Soviet-era urinal.
During the Cold War, the Russians used the tower as a convenient observatory post. Spies past their prime were sent to the Dedkárna (Old Geezers’ Room) or Dedkostroj (Old Geezers’ Machine) to keep an eye on “enemy” embassies.
Don’t let the ornate Baroque facade fool you. The Basilica of St. George in Prague is the oldest church in Prague Castle and one of the best-preserved Romanesque buildings in the city. It was founded in 920, destroyed by fire in 1142 and rebuilt in its present form.
Malá Strana (“Lesser” or “Little Quarter”) sits in the sunny shadow of Prague Castle. A devastating fire in 1541 wiped out much of the town, creating a tabula rasa for Renaissance and Baroque architects – and graffiti artists.
If this doesn’t look much like a medieval ghetto, that’s because most of the Josefov (“Jewish Quarter”) was bowled in the late 19th – early 20th century to make way for new, Parisian-style architecture. A smattering of synagogues, the Old Jewish Cemetery and the old town hall are all that remain to remind us of its history.
And its famous monster.
The Golem (1920)
Josefov is the birthplace of the Prague Golem, an amorphous lump of power and rage. According to legend, the late 16th century saw a spike in the persecution of Prague’s Jews. The Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, had demanded inhabitants of the ghetto be driven out or slaughtered.
To protect his people, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, better known as the Maharal, stole down to the Vltava in the dead of night and molded a creature from river clay. Deprived of Dr. Frankenstein’s electrical methods, he brought it to life with a series of incantations and mystic rituals.
In the final step, a shem – a combination of letters forming any one of the words of God – was written on a piece of paper and placed in the Golem’s mouth. The Maharal named his new baby, “Josef.”
For a while, Josef behaved himself. He summoned spirits from the dead, made himself invisible, did his job. At the end of the week, before Saturday’s Sabbath, the Rabbi removed the shem. Every Sunday, he resurrected the ghetto’s protector.
Then, disaster. One Friday night, the Maharal forgot to remove the shem. Loosed from his bonds, Josef went on a murderous spree, wreaking havoc through the old city. (In other versions of the story, he simply hares around the streets.) Only a last ditch effort from the Rabbi, who pulled the shem out in front of the synagogue, spared the citizens.