Plasy Monastery Diary

 

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NOTE: I added photos of the interior from my third visit.

I have been to Plasy twice, both times changing trains in Plzeň (Pilsen). It is only 45 minutes from the home of pilsner beer. The exterior of the building did not impress me, but when I got inside, I was in for a treat.

First, a bit about the history of the monastery: Founded in the 12th century by Prince Vladislav II, Plasy was burned down by the Hussites, followers of the martyr and preacher Jan Hus, in 1421 during the Hussite Wars, which pitted radical Hussites against the more moderate ones teamed up with the Holy Roman Empire, Royalists, Hungary and The Pope. (The Radical Hussites lost, and Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund put on the Bohemian crown.) In the 18th century architects J.B. Mathey, Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel and Kilian Ignác Dientzenhofer (the younger of the two Dientzenhofers, who hailed from Bavaria but worked in Bohemia during the 18th century) gave it a High Baroque appearance.

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Things took a turn for the worst, though, when Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II closed down the monastery in 1785. Austro-Hungarian Empire chancellor, diplomat and politician Klement Václav Lothar Metternich bought it in the early 1800s, and his family tomb is located in the Church of Saint Václav (Wenceslas) across the street from the monastery, Plasy is also associated with one particular composer: famous Czech Bedřich Smetana spent a week here. He was not the only Czech personality to set foot in Plasy, though: Czech King Václav I (Wenceslas I) also stayed here on several occasions.

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At the beginning of the tour, I walked along the 61-meter long Cloister Hallway, boasting eight ceiling frescoes by Jakub Antonín Pink. One tripartite fresco depicted the Virgin Mary offering food to monks while another showed the Virgin Mary helping monks work in the fields. I noticed the modern art on the walls of the hallway: All the paintings shared the theme of Saint Jan Nepomucký (whom English speakers might better know as John Nepomuk). The works of modern art seemed out of place, though.

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My group continued to the Chapel of Saint Bernard. Surprisingly, there was no furniture in this room. That was because Metternich sold all of it during his tenure there. Stunning, though, was the high wall painting of Saint Bernard, painted by premiere Czech Baroque artist Petr Brandl, whose works I greatly admired. Saint Bernard was leaning on a rock in a forest as angels flocked above. The ceiling fresco depicted Jesus Christ and the 14 disciples.

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The Chapter Hall, measuring 27 meters in height, was designed by famous architect Kilian Ignác Dientzenhofer. This was where new monks used to be accepted, and where monks had cast their votes for new abbots. I glanced up at the ceiling and was impressed with what I saw – a fresco of the Virgin Mary and a gathering of monks. The tour guide told us to bang our fists on one of the wooden benches: The echo would last more than nine seconds, she claimed. She was right.

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One step into the first part of the library and I wondered where the books were: In the second part there were indeed three tall bookcases, though one was almost empty. There was a reason for this, the guide explained: Metternich had changed the library into a smoking room and theatre. The first section, the former smoking room, featured a ceiling fresco. What did it depict? Hard to tell. All the smoke that had lingered in the air had turned the fresco black. In the other area Metternich had installed a seating area and stage, but I saw a Secession bureau, the three tall bookcases and a ceiling fresco depicting an allegory concerning medicine, philosophy and theology.

The former circular Reading Room was intriguing, too. It was home to eight larger-than-life canvases by Pink. These 18th century Baroque paintings all dealt with themes about eating and drinking, taken from the Old Testament.

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When I walked into Winter Dining Room, I noticed that there were no tables or chairs. Instead, I saw an impressive sculptural grouping of Saint Luitgarda standing in the otherwise empty space. Created by legendary Czech sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun, its original could be seen on Prague’s Charles Bridge. On the far right-hand side, I peeked into a small window of the monastery prison, where monks were sent if they came late for prayer, for instance.

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I also viewed two foundation water basins set there because the monastery was so close to the Střela River. These were part of the elaborate water pressure system designed by Czech architect Santini-Aichel, who, in order to give the monastery a firm foundation, constructed the convent on 5,100 oak piles and also created a system of connecting channels as a sort of defense against flooding. He specifically used oak wood because oak hardens in water. It fascinated me that Santini also came up with a unique hydrological system for the monastery.

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I didn’t miss the Baroque toilets, which were composed of circular holes in wooden benches. I looked down through the toilet seat and saw water below. On the way to the Hospital Wing, our group stopped at a self-supporting, winding staircase designed by Santini-Aichel, who I knew for his unique Baroque-Gothic style in a church at Sedlec, near Kutná Hora. I stretched my neck to glimpse the ceiling fresco of Archangel Michael fighting a dragon.

Then we moved to the Hospital Wing, where the pharmacy exhibitions were situated. First, I came across the Baroque pharmacy: I noticed the hand-made, exquisitely painted pictures on the drawers. My eyes were especially drawn to the drawer marked “opium.” It was the only one with a lock on it, the guide said.

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The Classicist pharmacy featured a white theme: wooden shelves were stocked with white jars, and the glass jars had white labels. All the labels on the drawers were white as well. Before reaching the Secession pharmacy, I stopped in the small hospital chapel. The Virgin Mary and 14 saintly helpers stared down at me from the ceiling. The Secession pharmacy flaunted many decorations of flowers and plants on the walls and cabinets. A chandelier impressed me, too. I liked the glass jars with white labels and the red and green fancy trim.

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Then our group left the main building of the monastery, crossed the street, passed the bust of Smetana in the small park and entered the Church of Saint Václav (Wenceslas), where Metternich’s family tomb was located. Originally a Gothic church, it had been reconstructed in Baroque style. Richard Metternich, Klement V. L. Metternich’s son, was the last of the family to be buried in the tomb, during 1938. Several abbots were also buried here.

After the remarkable tour I went to a restaurant nearby and had my usual, chicken with peaches and cheese. Then it was time to return to Prague, so I set off for the small train station. The numerous works of Baroque art had been stunning. Two paintings by master Karel Škréta, a creation by Esther I. Raab and six more canvases by Jan Kryštof Liška also helped to represent the rich Baroque art in the monastery. I better appreciated the differences among the three artistic styles by visiting the pharmacies. The Baroque ceiling and wall frescoes were unforgettable.Image

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