I traveled with arsviva again, this time to Gothic churches in the Čáslav and Posázaví regions of central Bohemia. After the last trip spent seeing Romanesque and Gothic buildings in South Bohemia, I was psyched. We would have the same enthusiastic, informative, organized expert as our guide, too. During the last tour I had especially enjoyed visiting churches in villages because they played an integral role in the village’s identity and had helped me come to the realization that each village was unique, with its own story to tell.
I was not sure if I would be able to go on the tour when my cat, Bohumil Hrabal Burns, suddenly died of a tumor in his mouth two days before the excursion. I lived alone and did not socialize much, and he had been my best friend, who had gotten me through so many troubles and heartbreaks over the previous 15 years. He always sat on my lap when I wrote on the computer. He always relaxed on my chest when I read in the evening. Since I worked mostly at home, we were almost always together. I would never have children. I cared about him as I would for my own child. He and I were inseparable.
At times I felt bitter. Why did he have to die now? One day it became apparent that he had a tumor in his mouth, two days later he had to be put to sleep. He was supposed to be taking vitamins for his liver, and I was certain that his condition would be improving. It was so hard to see him so sick on my bed. He just wanted to die alone. He would not rest on my lap anymore. And it was the worst moment of my life when I had to take him to the doctor to put him to sleep, knowing he would never be coming back to the place he had called home, where he had shown me so much love. I couldn’t imagine life without him.
The tour began, and I was happy. I was glad I was on the excursion and excited about the day to come. First, we stopped at Český Šternberk Castle to take in the view and to use the bathroom in a pub. I had toured the castle last year and had written about it for a travel agency.
Perched on a hill overlooking the Sazáva River, Český Šternberk Castle dominates the Posázaví region with its imposing, massive Gothic exterior. It looked both protective and threatening at the same time. I recalled the eclectic collection of treasures from Renaissance chests to Rococo furniture inside the castle. The castle’s history began sometime before 1242. I remembered seeing the Sternberg clan’s eight-pointed star throughout the castle, which is currently owned by one of the family. I would see that star on the tour that day as well.
Then we were ready to devote our time to Gothic churches. The first was the Church of Saint Havel in Otryby. It had Romanesque and Gothic features, dating from around 1200. I was amazed at the portals before I entered the church. The side portal was French Gothic, dating from the 13th century. It never failed to amaze me that something that old could stand the test of so much time, so many centuries. I wondered who the people who had walked through that portal during the Middle Ages had been. Who were they, what had they done for a living? Had they been beggars, merchants or farmers? Maybe nobility?
The main portal was of a totally different nature, in 19th century Neo-Gothic style. The interior was Neo-Gothic, too, which strangely complemented the Early Gothic construction and the Romanesque apse. I liked the mixture of styles and have always been a fan of Neo-Gothic features, but I wondered what the entire church had looked like when it was pure Early Gothic or Romanesque style.
The Church of Saint George in Malejovice was next on the itinerary. It was typical of Early Gothic village architecture, dating from 1250 or earlier, but parts were much younger. The tower dated from 1886 and the main altar from the end of the 18th century. The windows were NeoRomanesque, hailing from the 18th and 19th century. It was intriguing to see so many styles in a relatively small space. The different styles offered a sort of a pictorial narration of the church’s history.
Church of Saint George in Malejovice
Then we stopped in a town with a busy outdoor market on the main square. It was called Ulhířské Janovice, named after Jan Sternberg, who founded a settlement there back in the 13th or 14th century. First we entered the Baroque Church of Saint Alois on the square. The church had been built in 1777, completed in 1792. Its main portal dated from 1784.
The intriguing feature of this church was that the altars were painted onto the walls. The guide explained that this was cheaper and quicker than decorating the church with real, three-dimensional altars and statuary. I recalled the spectacular painted main altar at Hejnice Basilica in northern Bohemia. You would not even guess that the altar in Hejnice was painted; it looked so real. What surprised me about the main altar in this church was that even the statues were painted on.
Nearby was the Church of St. Giles, which could not be more different. The church had a Romanesque nave and a 14th century Gothic presbytery and sacristy. The one-nave church was made out of quarry rock with sandstone. A Romanesque window adorned the north side. However, the church did not only boast Romanesque and Gothic styles. The altar was Rococo while the pulpit was in Empire style.
It was a typical Gothic construction with Gothic wall painting. These frescoes dated from the 13th or 14th century but were in poor condition. They depicted the martyrdom and celebration of Jesus Christ. Even though a fire ravaged the church in the early 20th century, the frescoes and the Gothic presbytery had been saved. The church was rebuilt four years later, but the frescoes were not discovered until 1895. They were restored in 1953. I thought about the Stalinization of the 1950s, when Czechoslovakia was under harsh Communist rule and was surprised that frescoes in a church would have been restored then.
In the frescoes it was possible to make out Christ being taken to Jerusalem, and I saw the gate of Jerusalem with a palm tree in the background. I could make out Christ with a halo above his head, but the scene of the Last Supper was hardly visible. King David and King Solomon were present in the paintings, too. It was difficult to see the Crucifixion scene. The frescoes I liked best were the stars on what had been a blue background and the Sternberg family coat-of-arms.
Then came the village of Košice, where the Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary was located. As we entered the church through a magnificent Gothic portal, we saw an old inscription, but I am not sure what it said. The church had been originally built in Early Gothic style. The oblong nave and elongated square presbytery were Gothic, dating from 1300. The vaulting, which astounded me, hailed from 1563. One astounding feature of this church was its western tower, also going back to 1563. The tower had a Late Gothic portal and an inscription that dated from the year that the tower was built. The altar was much younger, from NeoBaroque days. I was so amazed that so much of the Gothic construction of this church remained. It was almost as if by walking through that Gothic portal, I had stepped into the Middle Ages.
I knew many castles, but I had never heard of the Sion Castle ruins. Located eight kilometers from the popular town of Kutná Hora, the castle had been constructed from 1426 to 1427 for Hussite leader Jan Roháč from Dubé as a representative seat rather than as a fortification. During the 15th century the castle had been the last stronghold of the Hussite revolutionary movement, when the followers of martyr Jan Hus took on several Catholic monarchs, including the King of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire. Hussite factions fought on both sides. The castle had then consisted of a triangular ground plan and a two-storey rectangular palace where Jan Roháč had lived.
It was conquered by Emperor Zikmund Lucemberk after a four-month standoff during September of 1437 and ended the Hussite wars. During the attack about 100 cannonballs damaged the castle palace. After the emperor’s victory, the castle was razed. Two days later Jan Roháč from Dubé was tortured in Prague and executed, most likely in Old Town Square. I tried to imagine the defeated Jan Roháč in red clothes and gilded restraints as he was hanged in public on my favorite square in the world.
The moat had been preserved. We had to walk over flimsy wooden planks to get over it. I looked at these foundations and was amazed at what a story these ruins told in a scene that so resembled a painting by Caspar Friedrich.
Then we hustled through a forest with steep inclines to get to a field where we could see the Church of Saint Andrew with its remarkable wooden bell storey in Chlístovice. We did not go inside because it was not open, but I read that the presbytery was polygon-shaped without supporting pillars, and it had a rectangular nave. While the church dated back to 1352, the entranceway was Baroque.
The next stop was Křesetice, the Church of Saint Markéta. This church had a rectangular presbytery with crisscrossed, ribbed vaulting. One Gothic window had been preserved in the presbytery. The Baroque high tower dated from 1680. Many features of the church hailed from NeoBaroque days. The wooden organ loft was probably NeoBaroque. The windows of the nave and the pulpit were NeoBaroque, too.
The church had been the home of a spectacular Late Gothic Madonna, but it was not on display there anymore, unfortunately. A marble portal dated from 1706. The ceiling painting did not seem to complement the NeoBaroque interior with Gothic elements. It was too modern, dating from 1946. The children and rainbow depicted on the ceiling jumped directly out of the 20th century and marred the interior, in my opinion.
Next we came to Čáslav, where I had waited for a train for two hours about eight years earlier. I did not know the town at all, though. Dominating the town, the deacon’s church of Saints Peter and Paul stood at 12 meters high with a tower that loomed 88.5 meters over Čáslav. Not surprisingly, it was listed as a cultural monument in the Czech Republic. Just one look at the massiveness of the exterior overwhelmed me. This was one of the most powerful churches I had ever seen. Its history goes back to the 12th century, even before the founding of the town.
It had been through some tragic times. Several fires had made rebuilding necessary, and it was plundered more than once during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. During the 18th century the interior was changed to Baroque, but during the 19th century, Neo-Gothic furnishings were installed.
One can still see Romanesque elements of the church. Originally, the Romanesque Church of Saint Michael had been located where the sacristy stands today. The Church of Saint Michael had boasted a rectangular nave with apse. A Romanesque portal that still exists had an intriguing tympanum. A Romanesque tower had been preserved with its bell storey and Romanesque latticed windows.
The Gothic style was also well-represented in this huge sacral building. It had a 13th century early Gothic presbytery and Gothic ribbed vaulting that overwhelmed me. I just stared at that vaulting, gaping. For some reason Gothic vaulting made me feel a deep spiritual connection. The organ loft also dated from the Late Gothic period. During the Middle Ages the presbytery had been covered in wall paintings. I tried to imagine the space with brightly colored frescoes giving it a certain vibrancy. Now all that was left of the wall paintings there was the head of Saint Christopher.
There were other frescoes in the church, though, but they were younger, from about the 15th century. These included the red Crucifixion of Saint John scene from the 1430s. The Virgin Mary was missing from the left-hand side. I wondered if she had never been painted or had been painted over.
The astounding church had features from the Renaissance period, too. In addition to Renaissance tombstones, there was a Renaissance holy water font as well as a pewter baptismal font from that era. The tabernacle was Rococo in style. The Chapel of Saint Anne was 17th century Early Baroque with stucco décor and cross-shaped vaulting. The main altar was Baroque, dating from 1794. In the front of the church stood Neo-Gothic altars.
I loved the way all these architectural styles came together to give each church its own personality. There was a little something of almost everything in this church that loomed protectively over the town and made me feel safe. This was one of the most monumental holy sites I had ever seen. And to think I had only been familiar with the train station before this trip!
To get to the Church of Saint Mark in Markovice, we had to walk down an overgrown path surrounded by high grass in a cemetery that must have been neglected for some time. Only the presbytery still existed, and it looked very modest from the outside as someplace one might easily overlook. Inside, though, were Gothic wall paintings, but the centuries had not been kind to them. It was possible to make out scenes from the martyrdom of Christ and to see Saint Peter in what used to be green drapery. Another part of the wall showed Moses accepting the 10 Commandments. The paintings were probably symbolic of the Old and New Testament.
I tried to imagine it as it had looked at the end of the 13th century or the beginning of the 14th century when it was founded. The place with wall paintings must have been stunning. I stared in awe at its original Late Gothic portal from 1531. I also admired the Gothic windows. An Early Baroque altar dated from 1667. The church had been repaired in 1531, when it served as the parish church. But when the parish was moved to nearby Žleby (where there is a spectacular chateau, by the way), this church’s condition began to deteriorate. Though it was renovated in the 17th century, it still was not in good condition.
Among the wild, high grass we saw the grave of Alois Eliáš, a Czech military leader, politician and supporter of the resistance during World War II, even though he had served as chairman of the Nazi Protectorate government from 1939 to 1941. The Nazis executed him for his resistance activities in June of 1942, when they were killing prisoners to avenge the assassination attempt and subsequent death of high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich.
The more I read about Eliáš, the more intrigued I was. He had made a name for himself fighting with the Czechoslovak Legion during World War I. He had spent part of his military career in Čáslav, not far from Markovice and had met his future wife in Čáslav. During the democratic First Republic Eliáš also advised Czechoslovak Minister of Foreign Affairs and future president Edvard Beneš. Although he was a member of the Nazi government during World War II, he was a symbol of the Czech nation to many Czechs living under the regime. He stayed in contact with underground organizations and the foreign resistance led by Beneš. One intriguing story about his resistance work concerned how he, his wife and his doctor murdered a pro-Nazi journalist by poisoning the bread they gave him.
However, his resistance work did not go unnoticed by the Germans. The Nazis put him on trial, and he received the death penalty. Eliáš languished in prison for a while, and then the assassination attempt on Heydrich took place. After that, the Nazis sent prisoners to concentration camps or to the execution grounds. He was taken to the Kobylisy execution area and shot during June of 1942.
Perhaps Eliáš’ grave had not been looked after for some time because during 2006 his ashes had been brought to Vítkov in Prague. Yet I had read his urn had to be hidden from the Communists because the totalitarian regime considered him to be a traitor. I wondered why he had a grave when his ashes had been in an urn all this time. Maybe initially he had been buried there, but then his wife had been allowed to take his ashes home. I also wondered why he had been buried in this long-neglected church cemetery, where the grass was seemingly never mowed.
The next stop was Okřesaneč, at the Church of Saint Bartholomew. The one-nave sacral building dated from 1300 and featured early Gothic construction. Yet there were Romanesque elements as well. The late Romanesque portal and three Romanesque windows enthralled me. While the sacristy on the north side and the nave were Gothic, the south side featured a Baroque side altar. The church also had a late Gothic tower with three floors. The cross-shaped ribbed vaulting in the presbytery was stunning. The interior was very modest. The church also included Neo-Gothic furnishings. The early Baroque altar featured Saint Bartholomew from 1680. Even though it had experienced Baroque and NeoBaroque reconstruction, the original core of the church was medieval.
Kozohlody was home to the Church of All Saints, constructed around 1300. There were Gothic wall paintings, but they were a bit difficult to decipher. The Last Judgment was pictured, but it was only possible to see Hell. At the top of the eastern side was the Escape into Egypt. Other scenes included the Birth of Christ and the Death of the Virgin Mary with two angels in the foray. On the south side I could barely make out Jesus Christ with Doubting Thomas, and behind the altar were fascinating though faded frescoes of the flogging of Christ. I tried to imagine these wall paintings full of vibrant colors. It was such a shame they had not been better restored and had not stood the test of time so well.
In Bohdaneč the Church of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary featured an original Gothic portal with a Gothic presbytery that boasted ribbed vaulting and a rectangular nave. The pulpit hailed from the 13th century. Tombstones in the church went back to 1350. The tower, though, was Baroque, and the benches were younger – from the 18th century. There were two remarkable chandeliers made from Czech crystal. They dated from around 1890.
In the entranceway I saw a plaque to the hometown victims of World War II and read names of people who had died in the Terezín and Mauthausen concentration camps. I was reminded of my most recent visit to Terezín, when I practically vomited from seeing the inhumane conditions in which prisoners were forced to live and die. Auschwitz had been even harder to swallow, but luckily, I somehow managed to get through both places without becoming physically ill. Seeing plaques referring to those lost in concentration camps certainly made me appreciate life more. Even with the death of my best friend, things were not that bad. The sun was shining, and I lived in a beautiful, democratic country.
The Church of Saint Lawrence in Zbraslavice had a Romanesque core, dating from the 12th century, though not much from that period survived. There was a Romanesque portal, though. The church had been reconstructed around 1300 into Gothic style. There was one spacious Early Gothic nave with an Early Gothic polygon-shaped choir plus a Gothic sacristy. The three-storey tower was of Late Gothic origin.
I loved the cross-shaped, ribbed vaulting in the presbytery. It somehow made me feel the presence of something or someone omnipresent. There had been Baroque and NeoBaroque reconstruction, and a lot of the furnishings were Neo-Gothic. Still, the medieval construction was very authentic. Once again, I felt as if I had stepped into a time period I could never know. For some minutes I felt such a strong connection to the distant past.
The Church of the Elevation of the Cross in Zruč nad Sázavou was first mentioned in writing in 1328. The Gothic portals were breathtaking. Again I wondered about the personal histories of all the people who had walked under those portals back in the Middle Ages. Their stories would never be told, but they must be fascinating. The church had a rectangular nave. The pewter baptismal font hailed from around the turn of the 17th century. The organ dated from 1861. The presbytery featured arched ribbed vaulting. The tower had a pyramid-shaped roof with a bell storey.
There was a Neo-Gothic chateau next to the church, and we had time to walk through the park. Since the town had prospered when a Bata shoe factory had been built there in 1939, the chateau featured a museum about shoe-making as well as an exhibition about dolls. It also offered two tours of its representative rooms. It had begun as a Gothic castle in the 14th century and had been changed into a chateau in 1547. It burned down in 1781, but various owners made repairs. Extensive reconstruction occurred from 1872 to 1878. In 1891 and 1892 it was changed into Neo-Gothic style with a stunning Neo-Gothic gate. There were also gazebos and garden terraces in the park.
It was fascinating to be able to visit so many Gothic churches that were normally closed to the public. I was glad I went on the trip and had been happy throughout the tour. Now it was time to go home to an empty apartment, without my loving and faithful Bohumil Hrabal Burns, who I had lived with for so many years. After visiting so many churches, I believed that it must have been his time to die. He had had a long life and would have died much earlier if he had not been on a strict diet. I was glad I was home when he died, that I hadn’t been on a trip when he was feeling so miserable. I realized that everyone had their time.
There were things I could not control as much as I wanted to, and in time I would be able to go back to an apartment filled with the joy and excitement of a new cat who got a chance to live a normal life rather than live in a cage in a shelter because of me. I had been necessary for all these generations going back to Romanesque days to believe in God to get them through their trials and tribulations. It was necessary for me to believe, too. Maybe not in God, but in something or someone who had a reason for taking my best friend from me.
I came back to Prague, happy. I was ready to enter my empty apartment, ready to welcome tomorrow as a new day, as a fresh start.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader.