Osek Monastery Diary

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Note: No photos were allowed inside

I traveled to the picturesque region below the Krušné Mountains to see Osek Monastery in 2018. It was my second visit in eight years. I remembered shivering with cold as I wore my rather thin jacket during that first visit, probably in October of 2010. Feeling partially frozen, I waited patiently for the bus back to Prague after a wonderful tour. I had enjoyed my time there immensely, but what I remember most is the cold that seeped through my garments.

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It was July when I came back for another look at the Cistercian monastery that was founded in the early 13th century, though monks had called the area home even at the end of the 12th century. This time, I arrived by car with a friend.

The Church of Our Lady at the monastery was a Romanesque creation, built as a three-aisled basilica in the shape of a Latin cross. The chapels and choir are rectangular. Measuring 76 meters long, during Romanesque days it was the biggest monasterial church in Bohemia.

The monastery was damaged during the Hussite wars of the 15th century during two years. The Hussites detested the Cistercians because, among other reasons, they were the wealthiest order in the Czech lands. The Thirty Years’ War brought devastation to the holy place. From 1580 to 1628, the monastery was closed.

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In the early 18th century, the Abbot Benedict Littweig ordered Baroque reconstruction. Two cupolas, the façade, sculptural ornamentation and the main altar all hail from that time period. The main architect of the makeover was an Italian born in Bohemia, Octavian Broggio from the Litoměřice region. He favored radical Baroque style and had experience working in Prague and in the area where he was born.

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During 1945 and 1946, the German monks who were living there were resettled in Germany for a while, and during 1961, they were sent to Germany again. At one point, the Salesians lived there, but the order was closed in 1950. The year 1950 would be the beginning of dreadful times. From 1950 to 1953, the monastery was used a detention center for priests. After that, it became a detention center for nuns. The Cistercian monks reclaimed the property in 1991 and left in 2010, when Abbot Bernard Thebej, who had overseen the monastery from 1991, died.

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I waited for the tour as I gazed at the Baroque façade with a superb portico. Saints John, Mark, Luke and Matouš faced me. I saw Saints Peter and Paul above them. I thought of the other Cistercian monasteries I had visited. In south Bohemia, I had seen both Vyšší Brod and Zlatá Koruna. At Vyšší Brod, I was most enamored by the library of 70,000 volumes, the third Czech monastic library. The Theological Hall with one of the largest collections of Bibles in Central Europe had also captivated me. I recalled the elaborate Rococo stucco decoration and numerous Rococo wall paintings at Zlatá Koruna as well as the early Gothic Chapel of Guardian Angels. Near Kutná Hora, not far from Prague, Sedlec Monastery had amazed me with its Santini-created Baroque Gothic style interior and paintings by Baroque master Petr Brandl. Plasy in west Bohemia also came to mind. Santini had done his magic there as well, and the Baroque pharmacy had such superbly painted drawers. I had toured Plasy at least three times. I had been impressed by Velehrad in Moravia, but I had been there so many, too many, years ago.

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The guide took us inside. The superb interior was pure Baroque with much stucco ornamentation. I was particularly drawn to one side altar because of its extremely morbid character. The altar featured Christ on the Cross, flanked by two angels, but the ornamentation made it feel creepy. It was adorned with figures of skulls and bones in Classicist style. At the foot of the Cross, there was a golden skull. I recalled the Cycle of Death murals at Kuks, a former hospital in splendid Baroque style. I had visited it on several occasions, so I was well-versed with the Baroque obsession for skeletons, skulls and bones. At the altar, there was a reliquary with remnants of Saint John the Baptist and other saints. All the chapels were impressive, but this one especially caught my attention.

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Interior of the church, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

There were two Baroque cupolas. I saw painted windows on one – a trademark of the Baroque style. Two Baroque organs graced the church. One of them had 666 pedals, giving it a mystical quality.

The choir benches – Baroque, of course – were amazing, made with intarsia decoration of wood on wood. The inlays were breathtaking. Black spiral columns and gold ornamentation added to the Baroque ambience. The guide opened a cabinet behind a bench: Hymnbooks were stored there. I could imagine the Cistercian monks singing in celebration and could almost hear their voices resound through the church. In front of the choir, there were modern benches where services were currently held. Facing these benches, underneath the floor, was the tomb of the last abbot.

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The main altar included impressive sculptures of the four apostles. Figures of angels also had prominent roles in the adornment. The painting of Assumption of Our Lady – the patron saint of the Cistercians – was the work of Jan Krištof Liška, a truly remarkable Czech artist. Václav Vavřinec Reiner, whose monumental painting I had seen at Duchcov Chateau a few months earlier, was responsible for the painting of the side altars as was Michael Leopold Willmann. Reiner also had created, along with Jan Jakub Steinfels, the ceiling paintings in the main nave and chancel. They portrayed scenes from the life of Christ and from the Old Testament.

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Aerial view of Osek, from http://www.mapio.net

The cloister surrounds a garden that is decorated with three tombstones from the 14th to 16th centuries. Eighteenth century paintings promoting the history of the order are features of the cloister. I could see Romanesque traits in the entrance portal to the cloister from the church.

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Vaulted ceiling, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

We passed by Well Chapel. A well, the monks’ source of water for a lengthy period, was the central element of the chapel, as the name suggests. Sculptural decoration adorned the well. On the wall behind it, there was a bright orange sliver of glass. This piece was original, dating back to the Gothic era. At that time, the glass had been brightly colored.

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Reader’s Lectern in Chapter Hall, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

The Chapter Hall was a Gothic delight. Constructed from 1225 to 1250, it was one of the first Gothic buildings in the Czech lands. The sandstone sculptures from this era were impressive. A Gothic statue of the Madonna hails from around 1430. Monks had frequented this area every day. In the middle of a room was a reader’s lectern from which monks would read aloud to those gathered in the space. A Gothic mechanism allowed the top of the lectern to swivel from side to side. In the chapel, the altar looked a bit flamboyant for late Gothic, with white and gold decoration. The wall paintings illustrating the history of the order were newer, dating from 1750.

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Gothic ceiling, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

Near the entranceway to the chapter hall was a dog’s paw print. I wondered what kind of dog had made the imprint and if the dog had lived during the Gothic period or Baroque era.

I loved that the monastery’s architecture celebrated both spectacular Baroque and Gothic styles. After the tour, my friend and I found a busy restaurant with outside tables, where we had delicious food. The establishment seemed to be the popular place for lunch in the town.

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Our stomachs filled with a satisfying lunch, we headed back to Prague. I had learned during the tour that the monastery would soon be closing for three years to have the entire interior renovated. I felt lucky I had had the chance to visit before the renovation and knew I had to come back in three years, to see an even more superb Baroque and Gothic creation.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Prague’s Botanical Gardens in Troja Diary

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I had visited Prague’s Botanical Gardens in the Troja district about 15 years earlier, but, for some reason, every time I thought of going back, the weather was bad or I did not have time. I love botanical gardens in foreign cities I have visited, such as Madrid. Why hadn’t I spent more time in the botanical gardens in the city where I lived? I chided myself one day in 2018.

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I finally got there again in the summer. I went with a friend in the morning, before the humidity and heat became too much to bear. The botanical gardens in Troja is vast. It measures more than 20 hectares with a greenhouse that had not been there when I last visited and an outdoor area divided into the southern and much larger northern parts.

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First, we explored the greenhouse that was erected in 2004. It is 130 meters long and 17 meters wide. Inside was a tropical forest. I loved the small bridge surrounded by foliage. The structure looked like it had jumped straight out of a Monet painting. I loved watching the fish in the glass tunnel that divided the freshwater pond into two sections. The fire eels and iridescent sharks were amazing. I would not like to stick my hand in that tank. I’m sure it would have been bit off right away. We also saw meter-long arowanas, angelfish and archerfish. We wanted to see some butterflies, but we only managed to set our eyes on two, but they were two beautiful butterflies!

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In the greenhouse, there is a lowland rainforest section with species from Australia, Africa and Vietnam, for instance. The biggest section features lowland rainforests of tropical areas in America, Asia, Australasia and Africa. Here we saw deciduous trees, lianas, coniferous trees and palms. We saw some well-known plants, such as begonias, but there were many rare species as well. One section of the greenhouse features vegetation from subtropical and tropical regions, which often experience dry seasons. We saw plants from Australia, Central America, Madagascar and places in Africa. The smallest section is dedicated to tropical regions found in the high mountainous regions. Only a few greenhouses in Europe have a cooled section that could support such species in that kind of climate. The air in this part is humidified by mist.

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Intriguing species that we saw include the Dutchman’s pipe, which is one of the most endangered species in the world. Its brown flowers look like mushrooms. It is located in the wild only in seven places in Central America. The giant fern is one of the oldest plants in the world. Its leaves can grow up to seven meters long. The trunk can be as much as three meters tall and one meter in diameter. The climbing pandanus, which can grow to 20 meters in height, is found in the wild in the Luzon Island of the Philippines. We also saw cocoa trees, which were once sacred to the Aztecs, who considered it to have seeds that are the food of the Feathered Serpent. I loved the turquoise color of the jade vine, which is found in the wild only on three islands in the Philippines. The torch ginger flowers, red with yellow edges, were beautiful. It is from Southeast Asia, and paper can be produced from its stems. We also saw the marsh pitcher plant, native to the mountains of Venezuela.

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Then we visited the southern part of the gardens. I loved the Ornamental Garden best with its large, colorful flowerbed. The Japanese Gardens dotted with azaleas is another delight. A wine press, a wine shop and Mediterranean vegetation are also located in the southern section. In addition to the Ornamental Garden, my favorite feature was the view of St. Claire’s Vineyard and Troja Chateau, a place dear to my mother and me. The Baroque chateau had been built from 1679 to 1685, its desin inspired by Roman villas. The chateau’s French garden boasted superb statuary. From the Botanical Garden the views of the city and of the chateau were breathtaking.

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Baroque Troja Chateau

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St. Claire’s Vineyard, which we saw from the top of a hill, has a long history that goes back to the 13th century. You can buy wine made from its grapes in the wine shop, but I do not drink alcohol, so I have not tried it. We saw the Baroque chapel of St. Claire, too.

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Alas, it became too hot and humid to continue after a few hours, so I did not get to the northern section during this visit, though I did go there when I first came to the gardens. I have to go back to see the variety of gems that it offers – a Mediterranean garden, forest biotopes from Asia and North America, a North American prairie, a cacti section, wetlands, a lake and a semi-desert section. I saw a picture of the peony meadow, and it was so enchanting. I will definitely go back there when the weather is not scorching hot. The northern part is so big that I do not know if I could see everything in one visit.

I was very glad that I had begun to get acquainted with Prague’s botanical gardens again, and I am sure I will be back to discover more of its treasures.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Gemäldegalerie Diary

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I visited the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin for the second time during 2018 and was just as enamored with the museum as I had been when I first came there. It was clear to me that this gallery hosting paintings from first years of medieval art to Neoclassism in 1800 has one of the best collections of European art in the world.

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The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder

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The German art, especially the paintings by Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder, was a true delight. I loved studying Dürer’s The Madonna with the Siskin from 1506. With a scenic landscape in the background, Mary has a cheerful and curious Jesus on her lap as he plays with a bird perched on his arm. Two putti hold a laurel crown over Mary’s head.

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However, it was the collection of Netherlandish work that I was drawn to like a magnet. Ever since taking a class at Smith College in Dutch and Flemish art, I have been a Netherlandish art fanatic. One of my favorites was Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Dutch Proverbs from 1559, which showcases 100 proverbs in a realistic village setting.

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Moses with the Ten Commandments by Rembrandt, 1659

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Susanna and the Elders by Rembrandt, 1647

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One entire room is devoted to Rembrandt’s art, and I spent a long time studying Rembrandt’s creations. While staring at Moses about to destroy the tablets in Moses with the Ten Commandments from 1659, I felt Moses’ ire and inner turmoil. In Rembrandt’s Susanna and the Elders from 1647, Susanna is swathed in light as the letch pulls her backwards toward him. Susanna draws viewers into the picture by looking straight at them, making them a witness to the physical abuse by the elderly, uncouth man and his accomplice.

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Child with a Bird by Rubens, 1624-25

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Saint Sebastian by Rubens, 1618

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Malle Babe by Hals, 1633-35

I also was overjoyed at seeing again Paul Rubens’ Child with a Bird from 1624-25 and felt the pure joy that the child must have experienced when first noticing the bird. Rubens’ Saint Sebastian from 1618 is riddled with arrows as his face is turned toward the sky, toward Heaven. Emotion and turmoil seep from the twisted figure. Frans Hal’s Malle Babe from 1633-35 shows an inebriated woman with an owl on her shoulder. I could almost hear her mad, raucous, and disturbing laughter roar through the exhibition space.

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Cupid as Victor by Caravaggio, 1601-02

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Other highlights for me included Jan Vermeer van Delft’s Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace. I loved the yellow of the curtain and her jacket. I adored Vermeer’s depictions of people going about their everyday routines. Even the simplest and smallest of gestures or movements acquires a poetic quality. Of course, I did not overlook Caravaggio’s works. His Cupid as Victor from 1601-02 displays his mastery at chiaroscuro as Cupid mocks the audience with a sly, cunning smile that announces love as victorious over science, art, fame and power. The five Madonnas by Raphael also stood out, and I remembered touring Raphael’s birthplace in Urbino.

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Overall, there are 72 rooms displaying masterpieces in the Gemäldegalerie. The main galleries house about 850 works. The history of the museum, harkening back to 1830, intrigued me. During World War II, many of its paintings were saved because they were hidden in the Thuringian salt mines, from which US soldiers rescued them. Other items in the collection were stored in air raid shelters during the war. During the Cold War, the works were divided into two galleries – one in West Berlin, the other in the East. The two collections have only been housed in one building since 1998. The Old Master Paintings are located at the Kulturforum with the Museum of Decorative Arts as its neighbor. I was dazzled by the works in that museum as it, too, is well worth a visit.

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Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.