2018 Travel Diary


A building in Rovereto, one of my favorite places I discovered this past year

For me 2018 will always be associated with Palladian villas and the Veneto region of Italy, the excitement of Berlin and remarkable Czech sights. I also visited some unforgettable art exhibitions in Prague and elsewhere in Europe.


Basilicata Palladiana, Vicenza

During March I traveled with a friend via the arsviva agency to the Veneto to see Palladian sights and other architectural gems in Vicenza, Padua and Rovereto. The three cities were fascinating, each with its own unique character. I was especially drawn to Vicenza for the Teatro Olimpico, Palazzo Leoni Montanari and Palazzo Chiericati. Of course, I admired the elegant arches and arcades of the Basilicata Palladiana.



The highlight of my tour of Palladian architecture was the Teatro Olimpico, one of only three Renaissance theatres in existence. Palladio’s plan was based on classical architecture. I most admired the illusive architecture in the set for Oedipus Rex, the oldest existing theatre scenery, which featured painting with a false perspective. It looked as if the seven roads of Thebes led from the stage into the horizon. Also, it was difficult to fathom that the clear sky was really painted. The illusion seemed so real.


A Russian icon in the Gallerie d’Italia

I cherished my time in the galleries of Vicenza. The Gallerie d’Italia was decorated with rich statuary, stucco ornamentation and frescoes. It houses 18th century Venetian painting, a unique 17th century sculpture made of Carrara marble and vases from Attica and Magna Graecia. However, the highlight of the gallery for me was its superb collection of Russian icons. I had only seen more intriguing collections in St. Petersburg.



The interior of the Civic Museum

The Civic Museum in the Chiericati Palace also caught my undivided attention. The palace itself was a work of art, designed by Palladio in 1550 with frescoes and stucco adornment decorating the interior. The art spanning from the 1200s to the 20th century was incredible.


Villa Rotunda – no pictures allowed inside

I also saw some Palladian villas, including La Rotunda, which inspired Thomas Jefferson in his design of his home at Monticello. The exterior’s appearance is that of an antique villa. The geometric design connects the sloping portico roofs with the ribs of the dome. The geometric interior was planned for comfort and beautiful views. The rooms are organized around a central hall with a dome. The villa has three floors and a mezzanine.


Basilica of San Antonio or Basilica del Santo – no photos allowed inside

In Padua I gazed in wonder at the Basilica of Saint Antonio, which is huge with eight cupolas. The interior has a Latin cross pattern with three naves separated by pilasters. The various chapels were outstanding. The Chapel of Saint Giacomo, hails from the 14th century with six columns of red marble included in the décor. The work, “The Crucifixion” is divided into three parts on the walls. Pictures on lunettes narrate the life of Saint Giacomo the Great.


Basilica of San Antonio, Padua

The main altar of the basilica was created by Donatello. The pictorial narration of the altar includes four miracles of Saint Antonio, sculpture of the Crucifixion, Madonna with Child and the figure of Saint Antonio, for example. The Chapel of the Saint includes the tomb of Saint Antonio. On the walls are nine reliefs of marble figures recalling miracles performed by Saint Antonio. There was so much to see, a person would need a few days to do this place of worship justice.


Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

I also was enthralled with the Scrovegni Chapel, which featured amazing 14th century frescoes by Giotto di Bondone. Thirty-eight panels of frescoes cover three walls on three levels. I was flabbergasted, staring at each fresco in a trance.




From the Depero Futurist House of Art, by Fortunato Depero

I was very impressed with Rovereto, a picturesque town below the Dolomites. Its charming, narrow streets and squares cast a magic spell on me. I visited the Depero Futurist House of Art, the only Futurist museum in Italy, featuring the works of Fortunato Depero, a painter, sculptor, writer and graphic designer. I learned that Futurism rejected the past and celebrated modernity as well as technological advances. The museum included furniture, painting, tapestries, cloth material, drawings, collages, posters, toys and a film. I loved the vibrant colors of many of the works.


Nowadays school children hang out or wait for tours at the Berlin Wall remnants


Glazed dome of Reichstag

In May I spent five days in Berlin, a city I had not visited since 1991 except for a one-day visit to the Gemaldegalerie several years earlier. The East had undergone radical changes since then, to say the least. Most of the Wall is gone. The former Communist section of the city is lively with bars and restaurants and includes most of the main sights. Now a Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks greet visitors past the Brandenberg Gate. Back in 1991, the difference between East and West Berlin was almost tangible, the East being gray, depressing and drab.


The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe


Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the Gemaldegalerie

Once again I inspected the art ranging from medieval days to Neoclassicism in the Gemaldegalerie. I was very moved by the 220 meters of original Berlin Wall at the memorial on Bernauer Strasse. Berlin’s Cathedral impressed me a great deal with the eight mosaics decorating its dome. I had a tour of the Reichstag’s glazed dome, a superb structure of modern architecture soaring 47 meters. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe greatly moved me with its 2,711 concrete blocks of equal size but different heights. The DDR Museum with its multimedia exhibits gave me an idea of what life was like for East Germans under Communism. The Old National Gallery bewitched me with its 19th century art collection, and the temporary exhibition Wanderlust featured 19th century landscapes with travelers on foot. I particularly liked the pictorial renditions of Naples and places in Sicily. I saw the Ishtar Gate and a building from Aleppo in the Pergamon Museum, for instance. The Museum of Decorative Arts was a treasure, too, with amazing exhibits in fashion, design and object art from the Middle Ages through Art Deco.


Plague mask worn by doctors in the German Historical Museum



Pictures of concentration camp prisoners

What impressed me the most was the German Historical Museum, where I spent a good part of two days. Encompassing 2,000 years of German history, the museum takes the visitor from the reign of Charlemagne to the departure of the Allies in 1994 by presenting historical facts, personalities and events and by portraying everyday life in the various eras. I especially liked the plague mask worn by doctors treating patients with this disease. Made of leather, it had a long beak and looked as if it belonged in a commedia dell’arte play. The section about World War II was especially gripping. The Germans were certainly facing that horrific part of their past head-on in this museum.


Troja Chateau from Prague’s Botanical Gardens

When my parents visited, we toured the dazzling Rudolfinum with its beautiful Dvořák concert hall. President Tomáš G. Masaryk was elected in that building on three occasions, when Parliament had met there during the First Republic. I visited the lovely and vast Botanical Gardens in Troja, examining the southern part and the greenhouse. The views of Troja Chateau from the gardens were unbeatable.


Prague’s National Museum restored


Painting of Karlštejn Castle in National Museum

Shortly after it reopened after a seven-year renovation, I spent time in the National Museum of Prague. The exhibition about Czech and Slovak relations during the past 100 years and life under Communism was outstanding. The permanent display also was captivating, but the place was so crowded. A Neo-Renaissance gem, the National Museum features amazing sculpture, painting and architectural elements. I especially liked the pantheon, where paintings, statues and busts celebrate Czech culture and history. The four paintings of castles in Bohemia impressed this avid castlegoer. I also explored the Hanspaulka, Ořechovka and Baba sections of Prague with their distinctive villas.


Gothic archway in Horšovský Týn Castle


From Horšovský Týn Chateau

Out of Prague I made my way back to Osek Monastery below the Krušné Mountains, established in the 13th century. The Chapter Hall was one of the first Gothic buildings erected in the Czech lands while the interior of the church takes on a Baroque appearance. Hořovice Chateau is much younger, hailing from the late 17th century. The Late Baroque décor includes a fantastic ceiling fresco in the hall of the main staircase. The Large Dining Hall amazes with Second Rococo adornment. Horšovský Týn Castle and Chateau offers six tours; we had time for two. Established in the 13th century, it includes an 18th century pool table with its sides decorated in tortoiseshell and intarsia. A Rococo jewel case and Holland Rococo display case caught my attention, too. The Italian vedutas of Venice made me long for that Italian city. The 18th century Dancing Hall features four big wall mirrors and a 28-branch chandelier made of Czech glass. Ceiling frescoes also captured my interest. However, the original Gothic portal at the entrance to the chapel was the most outstanding architectural feature. The chapel was magical, too. Velké Březno, one of the youngest and smallest chateaus in the Czech lands, also amazed.


Ceiling fresco at Hořovice Chateau


Velké Březno Chateau interior


Velké Březno Chateau exterior

I also spent time in museums this past year. In Vienna I saw the excellent Monet exhibition as well as the Pieter Bruegel the Elder exhibition. Both captivated me. In Prague the exhibition showcasing the various collages of Jiří Kolář was an art highlight. The exhibition about Czech and Czechoslovak history in the Riding School of Prague Castle was unforgettable. There were many more art-related highlights, but I do not have time to mention them all.


Collage by Jiří Kolář


Prague Castle Riding School exhibition


From Czechoslovak Exhibition at National Museum, cash register from beginning of 20th century

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




Osek Monastery Diary

Osek Monastery 1

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.

Osek Church 2

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.

Osek Church facade 2

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.




Kladruby Monastery Diary

Kladruby facade

I had visited Kladruby Monastery about 20 years before I participated in the arsviva tour of architect Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel’s creations in west Bohemia. I had wanted to pay the Benedictine Monastery another visit for a long time.

I already knew a bit about the fascinating history of the place. Kladruby Monastery was founded by Prince Vladislav I during 1115. It was established on the Nuremberg-Prague trade route. The monastery made quite a name for itself at the end of the 12th century and during the 13th century. The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Saint Wolfgang and Saint Benedict was consecrated in 1233 with King Wenceslas I on hand for the ceremony. (King Wenceslas I was not the only royal to visit the monastery; King Přemysl Otakar I held negotiations there during the 13th century, too.)


There was much looting later that century, but around 1370, a new abbot was appointed, and the situation improved. The Chapel of All Saints was added during that period. Then Hussite Wars brought devastation to Kladruby. The Hussites and then the army of the Emperor Sigismund took control of the monastery in the 15th century. The Benedictines returned in 1435, though it took about 70 years for things to shape up. The monastery flourished during the early 16th century, and more monks called Kladruby home. This was a glorious time of expansion. A school was set up; both Catholics and Protestants attended.


Things took a turn for the worst with the onset of the Thirty Years’ War. The monastery was looted and pillaged. Because the Catholics won, Kladruby was once again in favor after the wartime turmoil. Expansion and reconstruction took place in the Catholized land.

Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel, a Czech architect of Italian origin, became associated with the monastery in the early 18th century, when he was in charge of doing a makeover of the church in Baroque Gothic style, which emphasized Gothic features in a distinctly Baroque style. Thanks to his efforts, the church interior is bewitchingly beautiful.


In 1785 Emperor Joseph II dissolved the monastery. The Benedictines packed their bags, and the Windisch-Graetz clan moved in. During their tenure, they divided the monastery into apartments. One part of the complex was made into a brewery. The Windisch-Graetzes, however, did build a library that is rather impressive.

Kladruby was nationalized after World War II, and terrible times were to come. Sick cattle grazed on the monastery’s property while other parts were transformed into offices. Reconstruction did not begin until the middle of the 1960s.


I was especially intrigued by the Dining Room, which showed off an 18th century pewter service. What I found most intriguing, however, was the portrait of Cardinal Schwarzenberg. No matter where I stood, his eyes were always staring at me. I gazed at the portrait of the red-drapery clad cardinal with a stern expression from several angles.




In the ambulatory we saw many sandstone statues by Late Baroque sculptor Matthias Bernard Braun, one of my favorites. His works are so dynamic and powerful. It was evident that Braun’s sojourn in Italy had influenced his creations. Most of these statues were inspired by Greek and Roman historical themes while some stood for allegories of character traits. They were all original except for the statue of Count František Antonín Špork, who had been a prominent cultural figure and patron of the arts in the early 18th century. He had founded Kuks, a former hospital that had once been located across from a popular spa, and he commissioned Braun to make statues of vices and virtues for the Baroque exterior of Kuks.




I had visited Kuks for the third time the previous year, and Braun’s statues were certainly a highlight. The newly restored Dance of Death paintings lining a hallway and the Baroque pharmacy there were also impressive. I had also examined the statuary carved from sandstone rocks in Braun’s Bethlehem, situated near Kuks. Those accomplishments are by no means the only ones on Braun’s résumé. He authored several statuaries on Prague’s Charles Bridge, such as The Vision of St. Luthgard, which was his first work. It brought him much acclaim. At Kladruby we also saw 12 woodcuts depicting scenes from Christ’s childhood. It astounded me how it had been possible to portray so much detail in the 16th century carvings.



At the monastery there are about 500 sculptures, paintings and portraits of John of Nepomuk, the Czech patron saint of Bohemia who was drowned in the Vltava River on the orders of King Wenceslas IV during the latter part of the 14th century. The king and archbishop were at odds over who should be the abbot of the prosperous and influential monastery. John of Nepomuk showed his support for the Pope by confirming the archbishop’s candidate, which infuriated the king. John of Nepomuk became a saint in 1729.


Then came the Santini-designed Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Saint Benedict and Saint Wolfgang. Santini had been inspired by the Italian radical Baroque use of geometry and symbolism. I see Santini’s structures as rational yet radical. Santini elevates Gothic art to a new form, offering fresh perspectives and giving new insights. I fondly recalled last year’s arsviva tour of Santini’s structures in east Bohemia and Moravia. I had learned so much about Santini’s creations, and my appreciation of the architect had grown.


Santini was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a stonemason, but palsy prevented him from doing so. As a student he was mentored by Prague-based architect Jan Baptiste Mathey. During a four-year sojourn in Italy, Santini became enamored with works by Italian architects Francesco Borromini and Guarino Guarnini and their radical Baroque style. Santini was commissioned to reconstruct many religious sites. Baroque art became the fashion during the era when the Catholic army triumphed in the Thirty Years’ War and remained so afterwards, when the Catholicism flourished in the Czech lands. During a mere 46 years, Santini cast his magic spell on about 80 buildings.


It amazed me how the church at Kladruby – the third biggest church in the Czech lands – retained its Gothic charm while also celebrating the Baroque style. I loved the details, such as the slots for candles in the benches of the choir. The pulpit was shaped like a boat rocking on a stormy sea. The Baroque organ – which still worked – boasted 1,270 pedals. Santini designed the impressive organ case. At the bottom of the main altar, there was a small statue of Christ on the cross, and I noticed that the Christ figure was crooked. I wondered what that symbolized. Two devils appeared in paintings in the church as well. Directly below the gushingly Late Baroque dome decorated with a scene of the Assumption was a large eight-pointed star of many layers. It was just one of many eight-pointed stars symbolizing the Virgin Mary that appeared in the church. I also liked the Romanesque elements that Santini had retained. I loved the many frescoes on the walls as well as the church’s stucco ribs and helical vaults. The play of light was also dynamic. Light played such a major role in Santini’s designs.


The high altar, one of Braun’s masterpieces, was perhaps the most intriguing as it featured both Gothic and Baroque elements. It showed scenes from the life and torment of Jesus Christ and scenes from the history of the Benedictine Order. The Assam brothers, who had been Late Baroque gurus, had also decorated sections of the church.  I recalled the church in Munich that they had decorated. The Late Baroque adornment there was so overwhelming that it had made me dizzy.



We also visited the Windisch-Graetz Empire style library, which held 33,000 volumes and included a gallery. On display were weapons of various sorts and objects obtained during travels abroad.



I was more than satisfied with my visit to Kladruby and would recommend it to everyone who has time to see sights in west Bohemia. What impressed me most about Kladruby’s history was that it reflected the history of the Czech lands going through eras of prosperity, destruction and rebirth. Visiting the monastery was like reading a 900-year old illustrated text. Santini’s geometric symbolism, his use of Gothic and Baroque elements and the play of light greatly impressed me. Braun’s statues were so lively. Each facial expression told a story – some of delight, some of anguish. It was as if it was possible to see into the soul of each character represented in the statues.

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







Santini Tour of east Bohemia and Moravia Diary

The Holy Shrine of St. John of Nepomuk, Zelená Hora

The Holy Shrine of St. John of Nepomuk, Zelená Hora

For some years I had wanted to go on a tour of places designed by Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel, an 18th century Czech architect of Italian origin, who lived from 1677 to 1723. I am fascinated by Santini’s unique Baroque Gothic style, inspired by the Italian radical Baroque use of geometry and symbolism. I see Santini’s structures as rational yet radical. Santini elevates Gothic art to a new form, offering fresh perspectives and giving new insights.

Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel

Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel

Santini was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a stonemason, but palsy prevented him from doing so. As a student he was mentored by Prague-based architect Jan Baptiste Mathey. During a four-year sojourn in Italy, Santini became enamored with works by Italian architects Francesco Borromini and Guarino Guarnini and their radical Baroque style. Santini was commissioned to reconstruct many religious sites. Baroque art became the fashion during the era when the Catholic army triumphed in the Thirty Years’ War and remained so afterwards, when the Catholicism flourished in the Czech lands. During a mere 46 years, Santini cast his magic spell on about 80 buildings.

So, when I got the opportunity to travel with Czech tour company arsviva to Santini’s sites in eastern Bohemia and Moravia, I jumped at the chance. I was not to be disappointed.

The facade of the Church of the Assumption of Mary and St. John the Baptist

The facade of the Church of the Assumption of Mary and St. John the Baptist

We began our tour where Santini had launched his Baroque Gothic style, with the Church of the Assumption of Mary and St. John the Baptist in central Bohemia’s Sedlec, near Kutná Hora. The monastery hailed from the middle of the 12th century, when it was a Romanesque style church. It burned down during the 15th century Hussite Wars and would not get a makeover for 278 years.
The interior of the Church of the Assumption of Mary and St. John the Baptist

The interior of the Church of the Assumption of Mary and St. John the Baptist

Then, during the 18th century, the 25-year old Santini worked his magic on the largest church in the Czech lands. The façade featured a portico with a triple canopy. A four-leaf rosette decorated the gable of the façade. A large window allowed the light to stream in and give the space a unique character. I had never realized that light played such a major role in Santini’s structures until I saw how it made this church so dynamic.
The vaulting in the main body, the transept and choir boasted a network of circular ribs. The gallery and side body featured dome vaults divided by lancet rib bands. There also was a self-supporting staircase, another common element in Santini’s designs.
I loved the ceiling vaulting. The complex network of vaults reminded me of the complex situation Czechoslovakia had found itself in not long after the Velvet Revolution, when I moved to Prague in 1991. It had been an exciting time as Czechoslovakia had tried to find its own identity in a democratic system. Czechoslovakia would soon split apart, unable to negotiate the difficult roads. I, too, had been trying to find my own self-identity, not a simple matter, either. But I like to think, that unlike the situation with Czechoslovakia, I found my way through the network of vaults.
Next stop: Želiv Monastery Church of the Virgin Mary’s Birth. The monastery was founded in 1139. Santini’s designs were implemented here from 1714 to 1720. This time Santini was not changing the structure into his unique Baroque Gothic style. He had another building constructed and connected it to a Gothic chancel that he had renovated. A Gothic monstrance made of wrought iron shows off in Santini’s style. The three naves with galleries were separated by hanging pendant keystones. This feature gave the space a sense of fragility.
Želiv Monastery's Church of the Virgin Mary's Birth

Želiv Monastery’s Church of the Virgin Mary’s Birth

The two 44-meter high clock towers close a polygonal arcade antechamber, one feature of Santini’s designs. The façade has a triangular gable. The wooden Baroque main altar dated from 1730, with a picture of the Birth of the Virgin Mary and symbols of the four evangelists. There were gilded reliefs on the altar under the statues of prophets. Behind the altar was an original Gothic sanctuary. The organ dated from 1743. Most of the interior furnishings hailed from the first half of the 18th century, after the devastating fire of 1712.
Želiv experienced harsh times during the totalitarian regime. In 1950 the Communists shut down the monastery and transformed it into a detention camp for monks. Then in 1957 it became a psychiatric institution and remained so until 1992. The monks were able to return in 1991.
Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in Žďár nad Sázavou

Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in Žďár nad Sázavou

Then we traveled to Žďár nad Sázavou, where a monastery had been erected in the 13th century. I had visited the monastery some years earlier to see a museum devoted to books. I will forever recall excitement of seeing a 1984 exile edition of Milan Šimečka’s Restoration of Order (Obnovění pořádku), one of my most treasured sources of information about life during the 1970s normalization period.
Monumental fresco in the prelature

Monumental fresco in the prelature

Back to Santini. This time Santini made his mark in the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady mostly with the massive organ lofts that were situated in front of a Gothic altar in the transept. He also worked on the naves. The feeling I got from the church was so uplifting. Literally, I found myself looking upwards but also mentally I found myself in a good mood, delighted by the Baroque decoration that enveloped the space. We also saw the prelature, which featured a monumental fresco celebrating the angelic bliss of the Cistercians. The fresco was bursting with energy, and I found myself embracing life to the fullest.
Lower Cemetery shaped as a human skull

Lower Cemetery shaped as a human skull

Santini designed other structures for the town as well. We also saw the Lower Cemetery, which Santini shaped as a human skull with three chapels. It was constructed at a time when the plague was spreading throughout Europe. Because the plague never reached Žďár nad Sázavou, no one was ever buried there. I admired the design because it was so bold, so vivacious.

Perhaps Santini is best known for his last creation, the site we visited next – The Holy Shrine of St. John of Nepomuk on Green Mountain (Zelená hora), the area where Saint John of Nepomuk was allegedly raised, near the historical border of Bohemia and Moravia. I had been to this UNESCO World Heritage Site once previously, during a bitterly cold October afternoon, but I had been on my own and had not fully appreciated it.

Holy Shrine of St. John of Nepomuk, Zelená Hora

Holy Shrine of St. John of Nepomuk, Zelená Hora

This time I was on a tour, and the guide explained lucidly about the geometric symbolism that Santini employed. I immediately saw the connection with Borromini’s radical Baroque, which Santini had forged into his own unique style. Unfortunately, although it was April, it was snowing, and I was only one of many participants not dressed warmly enough for the cold temperatures.
In 1719 Saint John of Nepomuk’s tomb was opened, and the tissue thought to be his tongue was found to be intact. Žďár nad Sázavou Abbot Václav Vejmluva wanted to celebrate this miracle and show how much he revered the saint, so Santini designed a church and cloister area with five chapels and five gates on the hill. The number five is of great importance in Santini’s plans. The ground plan was shaped like a five-pointed star. The number five represented the five wounds of Christ as well as Christ’s five fingers of blessing. It also stood for the five stars that, according to legend, appeared when the queen’s confessor John of Nepomuk died, drowned in the Vltava on the orders of King Wenceslas IV, allegedly for refusing to reveal the queen’s confessions to her husband. There are five altars in the church, too.
Zelená Hora

Zelená Hora

The construction of a church based on a circular form and the intersecting shapes fascinated me, but I was glad to be finally ushered inside, temporarily escaping from the foul weather. The design was so rational yet inventive at the same time. The place had a mystical quality, too. The nave of the small church was surrounded by four chapels and a chancel as well as five ante chapels. I looked upward and was captivated by the representation of a large, red tongue on the dome. The windows above the entrances in the lantern chapels took the form of tongues as well.
The main altar at the Holy Shrine of St. John of Nepomuk

The main altar at the Holy Shrine of St. John of Nepomuk

The dome of the Holy Shrine of St. John of Nepomuk with a painting of a tongue

The dome of the Holy Shrine of St. John of Nepomuk with a painting of a tongue

The main altar in the Holy Shrine of St. John of Nepomuk

The main altar in the Holy Shrine of St. John of Nepomuk

The main altar showed St. John of Nepomuk dramatically rising from a globe which boasted five eight-pointed Cistercian stars, standing for the five continents where Christianity ruled. Three angels were positioned around the globe, and another two opened a baldachin. The scene reminded me of a theatre performance, as if the angels were announcing that a play was about to begin. (During the Baroque period, theatre had flourished.)
Detail of the pulpit at Zelená Hora

Detail of the pulpit at Zelená Hora

The tongue-shaped windows at Zelená Hora

The tongue-shaped windows at Zelená Hora

Before long it was time to brave the freezing weather again, and we made our way to the bus that would take us to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Horní Bobrová, built from 1714 to 1722. I noticed that the entrance portal took the form of a pentagon. Santini preserved only the nave of the originally Late Romanesque church that had originally stood there. He transformed the nave into a chancel with altar and added another nave. In doing so, he changed the entire orientation of the church.
Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Horní Bobrová

Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Horní Bobrová

Interior of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul

Interior of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul

The next church we saw was also in a village, this one called Zvole, which is officially in the Vysočina region. Santini redesigned the originally Gothic Parish Church of Saint Wenceslas so that the ground plan was shaped like a Greek cross. Construction took place from 1713 to 1717. The highlight of this church was its roof that sported a lantern topped with a crown, symbolizing the Czech patron saint. Santini extended the eastern section of the church, which featured a chancel. The church also had two rectangular towers.
The Parish Church of Saint Wenceslas, Zvole

The Parish Church of Saint Wenceslas, Zvole

Abbot Vejmluva had hired Santini for this project, and the architect paid homage by putting his patron’s initials, shaped as a W, along with a cross on the gable. Because the church was damaged by fire in 1740, most of the interior furnishings dated from the mid-18th century. The main altar hailed from 1770. Its painting showed a victorious Saint Wenceslas. The picture, hailing from the second half of the 17th century, was the work of the Czech Baroque master, Karel Škréta.
Detail of the pulpit in Zvole

Detail of the pulpit in Zvole

Before checking into our hotel in Žďár nad Sázavou, we stopped in front of a pub at Ostrov nad Oslavou, which boasted a ground plan in the shape of the letter W, meant to honor Vejmluva, who had Santini build it. We then went to our hotel, an ugly, gray building with decent rooms and decent food in a quaint dining area.
Church of the Virgin Mary, Obyčtov

Church of the Virgin Mary, Obyčtov

The next day began with a trip to Obyčtov, where Santini had arranged the ground plan of the Church of the Virgin Mary in the shape of a turtle, symbolizing the constancy of faith. The shapes of Santini’s structures continued to fascinate me. I was still enamored by the Lower Cemetery in the shape of a human skull and the geometric forms at the Holy Shrine of Saint John of Nepomuk on Green Mountain. Santini was able to make the church in Obyčtov so dynamic by giving it such a defining, bold shape. I had abhorred math as a youth, but I appreciated how Santini integrated geometrical forms into his designs. I reveled in the mathematical symbolism of Santini’s creations. We happened to have a church organist in our group, and he played the organ in Obyčtov. With the notes resonating throughout the Baroque structure, I had an even greater appreciation of Santini’s architecture.
Pulpit at the Church of the Virgin Mary, Obyčtov

Pulpit at the Church of the Virgin Mary, Obyčtov

I had visited Rajhrad Monastery about six years earlier, when I had devoted my time there to the Museum of Moravian Literature and an exhibition on the life and work of my favorite Czech writer, Bohumil Hrabal. This time we visited the Church of Saints Peter and Paul and the monastery interiors apart from the museum.
Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Rajhrad

Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Rajhrad

The monastery was established back in 1048 and is the oldest existing monastery in Moravia. Originally Romanesque in style, the monastery was rebuilt in Baroque style in the 18th century, thanks to Santini. It remained functional during Emperor Joseph II’s reign. It experienced dark days under the Communist regime. In 1950 the Communists took it over, and the monks were placed in detention camps. The army took over the complex. After the Velvet Revolution the monastery was in a shambles.
The monastery was situated on swamp land, and Santini solved this problem just as he had at the west Bohemian monastery of Plasy. He placed the building on wooden piles and grates. He flooded the oak wood with water so that they would not rot. A small pond nearby had formed a sort of water reservoir, a place where rainwater could drain and a place where the underground water could level out. Unfortunately, in the latter part of the 20th century, the pond was filled up, and some of the piles began to rot, which did not fare well for the walls. Concrete has been used to fill in the foundations.
Interior of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul

Interior of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul

The space that fascinated me most was the third largest monastery library in the country. The illuminated manuscripts on display were dazzling. The oldest hailed from the ninth or 10th century and dealt with the lives of martyrs. In awe, I gaped at The Bible of Kralice. It was the first complete translation of the Bible from original languages into Czech, dating from 1579. The Bible of Venice was on display, too. It was the first Czech printed bible published abroad, in Venice, during 1506. Some shelves only contained Bibles, but others held books about theology, history, medicine and mathematics, for example. There were even some works of fiction in the library. The books were written in Latin, German, English, French and Hebrew, for instance. I took a few moments to gaze at the Pergameon manuscript from the 13th century.
The stunning fresco on the ceiling celebrated the Benedictine Order. The fresco also included portrayals of musical instruments. There was illusive painting of three statues in the room, too. What really caught my attention, though, was the large globe. It took a monk 16 years to create the globe that had been finished in 1876. He had drawn the entire world on it by hand. There were various clock mechanisms on display, and clocks told the time at noon in various towns in the world, such as Tokyo, Melbourne and Honolulu. The huge, white books in one corner hid a staircase that went up to the gallery.
The Church of Saints Peter and Paul used decoration of artificial marble, which was more expensive and lavish than natural marble. This space was just one more example of Santini using light in a dynamic way so that the visitor is drawn toward the main altar. Yet the light affects each space in a different way. Each section has its own intensity, giving the church a unique character.
The ceiling frescoes astounded me. They were so dynamically and dramatically Baroque. This was an altogether different Baroque than we had witnessed the previous day. This Baroque was livelier, jumping at the viewer, more intense, practically rippling with tension. The style of Baroque was more open than the rather closed, Czech style we had seen the previous day because Rajhrad was closer to Vienna, where there was a different understanding of Baroque. The feeling in Rajhrad was uplifting. Looking up at the ceiling frescoes, I felt as if I could soar into heaven.
The main altarpiece in Jedovnice

The main altarpiece in Jedovnice

Taking a break from Santini, we visited two modern churches. The first one was in the village of Jedovnice, which was first mentioned in writing during 1269. A church had stood in the village since the 13th century. The Church of Saints Peter and Paul was built from 1783 to 1785, though the foundations of the tower go back to 1681. However, a fire destroyed most of the town in 1822. During 1873 a Neo-Gothic main altar was installed with a painting of the two saints. From the outside it looked like a typical village church. The interior, though, was a different story.
Closeup of the main altar

Closeup of the main altar

In 1963 the main altar was dismantled, and in its place appeared a modern work of art by Mikuláš Medek, a prominent Czech painter during the second half of the 20th century, and Jan Koblasa, a Czech sculptor, painter, poet and musician who also had decorated the presbytery. The balustrade on the organ loft was designed by one of my favorite contemporary sculptors, Karel Nepraš, who had a very unconventional style. I had always been intrigued by Nepraš’ sculptures made of wire, pipes or metal objects.
A Gothic statue in the modern church at Jedovnice

A Gothic statue in the modern church at Jedovnice

The main altar picture showed Christ’s cross painted in blue, which stood for hope. The gold circle in the middle of the Cross meant that the value of the cross is inside; a person first must comprehend God’s suffering before he or she is able to have hope. The powerful picture had a mystical quality.
The modern windows in the nave got my attention. For example, one showed the death of Saint Paul, showing how the execution sword becomes a path to new life. The window symbolizing the death of Saint Peter was decorated with tears in the background to show Peter’s regret at having denied Christ three times. I also noticed that the cross was upside down, the way Peter was crucified. The white, modern pulpit startled me. The Gothic Madonna had been brought from a church destroyed during the 15th century Hussite wars and seemed very out-of-place with the abstract adornment.
The Chapel of Saint Joseph in Senatářov

The Chapel of Saint Joseph in Senatářov

In Senatářov we saw the modern Chapel of Saint Joseph, which had opened in 1971. A chapel had stood in the village dating back to 1855. In 1891 there was a 2-meter high stone cross and a stone statue of Saint Joseph in the chapel. The Nazi Occupation was a horrific time for Senatářov, when the inhabitants were forced to move to 85 other villages. That’s when it was decided that, if the people ever return to their hometown, they would erect a new chapel. And that is what they did – from 1969 to 1971. During the more liberal time of the Prague Spring in 1968, the community was able to get permission to build the chapel. However, the Communists then forbid them from consecrating the church. It was not consecrated until 1991. The interior furnishings include an abstract work of the Last Supper and another fresh perspective on the Stations of the Cross. The light fell dramatically on the main altar in the church as light played a dynamic role in the interior.
The main altarpiece in Senatářov

The main altarpiece in Senatářov

While I admired what artists were trying to do by utilizing modern decoration, the style did not work for me personally. I much preferred a Gothic or Baroque church to a modern, abstract style. I liked churches that spoke of a historical past, where I could see and feel the connections with the past traditions. The modern style left me with a sort of emptiness. I felt that I had nothing to relate to. I needed to feel the weight of centuries past, to feel that for so many centuries people had stepped into that space and prayed and cried and hoped.
The Chapel of Saint Joseph, Senatářov

The Chapel of Saint Joseph, Senatářov

The last place on our list was certainly one of the most impressive: The Pilgrimage Church of the Virgin Mary in Křtiny, near Brno, the capital of Moravia. This time Santini used the shape of a Greek cross as the ground plan for the nave. A central dome and frontal tower were two other features of the architectural gem. The cupola measured 54 meters in height, and the tower was 73 meters high. Two rows of windows – there are more than 30 windows in total – brought light into the church. The lower windows were rectangular while the upper ones were smaller, oval in shape.
The Pilgrimage Church of the Virgin Mary in Křtiny

The Pilgrimage Church of the Virgin Mary in Křtiny

I was overwhelmed by the fresco decoration. The natural light and the Baroque frescoes gave the place an airy feeling. The fresco in the main cupola celebrated the Virgin Mary, who was accompanied by saints. The oratory above the main entrance had stunning fresco adornment, too. It showed angels with musical instruments celebrating the Virgin Mary.
The Madonna of Křtiny

The Madonna of Křtiny

The main altar was breathtaking with the life-size Gothic statue of the Madonna of Křtiny or Virgin Mary of Grace, the patron saint of Moravia. The statue hailed from the end of the 13th century. Made from marlstone, it is polychrome and partially gilded. The Madonna stood on a black marble pedestal. The Virgin Mary gripped a scepter while Jesus held an apple. A golden half-moon also decorated the statue. Golden sunrays surrounded it. Some of the paintings decorating the interior were by Ignatius Rabb, one of the premier Czech Baroque artists of the 18th century. I was also impressed with Saint Anne’s Chapel and the cloister with its votive paintings. There was a carillon, too, and we listened to the bells’ tranquil melodies.
Then we made our way back to Prague. The trip had been exhilarating. I had visited many new places and now appreciated Santini’s work, thanks to an expert guide. I had found The Holy Shrine of St. John Nepomuk and the Church of the Assumption and of St. John the Baptist to be the most impressive. I loved Green Mountain for its mathematical symbolism. The theatricality of the main altarpiece also had grabbed my attention. In the church at Sedlec, I loved the way light imbued the church with a mystical quality. I loved the way light defined the space. And the ceiling network of vaults – it was overwhelming, almost too much to take in.
The trip had more than lived up to my expectations. I was eager to see the west Bohemian sites that Santini had designed – hopefully, next year a tour would be offered. I also had a better appreciation of architecture in general. And, of course, the Baroque Gothic style would always be dear to my heart.
Church of the Assumption of Our Lady, Žďár nad Sázavou

Church of the Assumption of Our Lady, Žďár nad Sázavou

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

Zlatá Koruna Monastery



I traveled by a very comfortable train to the monastery of Zlatá Koruna (“The Golden Crown”) one summer morning. When I got off the train, I almost panicked. I was in the middle of nowhere. Soon, though, I got my bearings, found the village and made my way to my destination. The monastery is situated only six kilometers from the historical, romantic town of Český Krumlov, in a picturesque setting next to the Vltava River.

The monastery of Zlatá Koruna was founded by King Otakar II of the Přemyslid dynasty in 1263 for the Cistercian Order. Legend has it that King Otakar II promised to establish a monastery and dedicate it to the Virgin Mary if he won the Battle of Kressenbrunn in 1260. Though burned down by the Hussites during the Hussite Wars in 1420, the monastery was reconstructed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Zlatá Koruna suffered again, though, when, at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, it housed various factories.

It looks nothing like a factory now, I thought to myself as the tour of the three-aisled basilica, big and small convent buildings and chapel began.

The elaborate Rococo stucco décor and exquisite Rococo wall paintings throughout the monastery astounded me. I was impressed by the refectory, the former monastery dining room, which housed three early Baroque frescoes dating from 1685. The painting at the door of the refectory showed prophet Habakkuk with an angel. The middle fresco took up the Holy Trinity theme. Another fresco was devoted to Hagar with his son Ishmael and an angel. The entranceway to the refectory was decorated by a huge canvas that told the story of Josef in Egypt.

The Chapel of Guardian Angels was the oldest preserved part of this monastery, dating back to the late 13th century and, I soon realized, a gem of early Gothic architecture in the Czech lands. In 1763 painter František Prokyš adorned it with beautiful Rococo frescoes.

The Chapter Hall, built in 13th century Gothic style, featured Rococo paintings depicting religious allegories. In the Cruciform Passage area of the Big Convent, my eyes were drawn to the rich Rococo stucco decoration and stunning frescoes by Lukáš Plank. These works illustrated scenes from the history of the Cistercian Order, the guide told our group.

The Church of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary was also dominated by stucco ornamentation. The main altar dated from the late 18th century and was adorned with sculptures by Jakub Eberle. I did not miss the High Gothic rose window in the transept, either.

Other sights that enthralled me included the epitaph of Přemysl Otakar II.  An empty coffin was opened by the God Saturn, Pallas Athena standing at his side. Designed circa 1772 by Jakub Eberle, the epitaph showed off a black coffin surrounded by rich sculptural ornamentation and dynamic, twisting figures as well as white and gold decoration.

During the 1700s the monastery served as a school for children, and part of the tour highlighted teaching aids in the form of small pictures depicting significant personalities from Czech history. Other pictorial learning tools included pictures of a carpenter’s workshop and a blacksmith’s workshop, for instance. An exhibition about literature in southern Bohemia rounded out the tour. A Czech literature enthusiast, I was enthralled with the displays.

Afterwards, I took a walk across the bridge to the other side of the Vltava and relaxed on the embankment. I thought about many things – happy and sad moments, failures and successes – as I gazed at the monastery from the opposite embankment. It was a sunny summer day, the perfect weather for traveling. I watched many people canoe down the gentle river. Before long, though, it was time to get lunch and then head for the small shack that served as a train station. While waiting for my train back to Prague, I stared at the monastery in the distance. Then I boarded the train, and the monastery disappeared from sight. View from Zlata Koruna

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

Plasy Monastery Diary



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Teplá Monastery Diary

Located in west Bohemia, situated near the famous spa town of Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad), Teplá Monastery is noted for its Baroque frescoes and spectacular library. I got there by train, changing once. This was my second visit. Facing the monastery, I looked up at the tall, gray towers that dominate the entrance.

Established in 1193 for the Premonstratensian Order by Czech nobleman Hroznata who later became a monk at Teplá, it is now owned by the Premonstratratensian Order. Historical figures have graced this sacral building. Even Czech King Václav I (Wenceslas I) attended the monastery’s first mass. Unlike the Břevnov, Plasy and Zlatá Koruna, this monastery wasn’t destroyed by the Hussites during the Hussite Wars. That was when two factions of the followers of Jan Hus fought each other, the moderates supported by the Holy Roman Empire, the Pope and others in the early 15th century (approximately from 1420 to 1434). While the church has been preserved from the 12th century, the library, my favorite space, is the newest building, constructed from 1902 to 1907. It is now the property of the Monastery of the Premonstratensians at Teplá.

First, I entered the Chapter Hall with its ornate, stucco ceiling frescoes of the 12 apostles and Saint Norbert. One ceiling fresco depicting Saint Norbert’s coffin being hauled to Prague’s Strahov Monastery in 1627 especially caught my attention. In the refectory, once the summer dining room, tables and chairs were notably absent. The only furniture saved was the exquisitely wood carved cupboard standing in one corner. Still, the room didn’t disappoint: on the wall was a fresco of the Last Supper from 1816, and a ceiling fresco paid homage to Saint Paul.

While making my way from the refectory to the church, I glanced out a window at the courtyard which appeared so tranquil with its four Baroque sculptures of Saint Prokop, Saint Jan Nepomuk, Saint Václav (Wenceslas) and Saint Vít (Vitus).

Teplafromweb3We came to The Annunciation of the Lord Church, the oldest part of the monastery, dating back to the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century. Originally built in Romanesque Gothic style, it had been redecorated with Baroque ornamentation. The Baroque reconstruction was carried out in 1735 under the plans of architect Kryštof Dientzenhofer, the eldest of the two Dientzenhofer architects who hailed from Bavaria but worked in the Czech lands during the 18th century. The space dazzled me. There was so much exquisite décor in one place that I could hardly take it all in. I checked out the impressive large wooden statues by Ignác Platzer, studying those depicting saints and four religious teachers. The Baroque organ and the stained glass window above were intriguing, too.

A large wooden slab and plaque on the floor demarcated the place where Hroznata was originally buried in 1217, in front of the Rococo main altar, which showed Saint Norbert and Saint Václav (Wenceslas) in the middle with Saint Augustine, Saint Michal and Saint Anna accompanying them. I also noticed that the enormous 18th century Baroque canvases on the sides of the main altar that featured both Moses and the crucifixion.

Tepla2To one side of the main altar I saw the Hroznata Chapel, where the remains of Hroznata were kept in a white marble altar. A painting on the right-hand side of the chapel showed Hroznata as a knight founding two cloisters. I was especially intrigued by the altar of Saint Theodore with its finely carved wood and statue enclosed in glass. The fresco above the chapel is divided into three sections, all of which fascinated me equally: one showed Hroznata being captured by robbing knights, another showed the dead Hroznata in prison at Kinsberg Castle, and the third showed him ascending to Heaven.

Then I walked down the hallway, noticing the elaborate oak benches on either side. At the end of the hallway, I looked back at the entire church: it was 65.25 meters long and 15.60 meters high. It was so overwhelming to take in all the breathtaking Baroque handiwork.

Teplafromweb2Now it was time to leave the church and enter the library. The first room welcomed me with an enormous illustrated Gothic manuscript and portraits of Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa (the only female to rule the Habsburg domain) and her husband Francis Stephen of Lorraine.

I entered the main hall of the second oldest library in the country, now housing scientific collections. The fresco on the ceiling by Karl Kratner depicted monks and angels celebrating flanked by four religious teachers and four Evangelists. While the library contained more than 100, 000 books, not all of them were on display. Still, the library was astounding! So many books I wished I could touch and read! I felt so comfortable around books, objects that had become good friends to me over the decades.

Tepla3This particular collection included 700 manuscripts and 540 first printings. Wow! The books were written mostly in Latin (40 percent) but also in German and Czech. The oldest book dated from 915 to 930 AD (Can you believe that?), while perhaps the most well-known was called the Codex Teplensis, which is the oldest translation of The New Testament into German, hailing from the 15th century. Most volumes, though, dated from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Then the tour was over. I could have stood in that library for hours! It had to be one of my favorite libraries in the world! No, I did not want to leave. I walked out of the space slowly, reluctantly.

I had my favorite chicken with cheese and peaches in a comfortable hotel restaurant near the monastery and made my way back to the train station. I got lost returning to the station because I was thinking about the library and not paying attention to where I was going. I wound up walking down a deserted road, fields on either side of me. An elderly man finally crossed my path person, and I began walking toward the station. I had such a bad sense of direction! Not a good quality for someone who loves to travel! Yet for me part of the fun of traveling was getting lost and losing myself so I could find myself again, a changed person with a new perspective on life.

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




Broumov Monastery Diary

Broumov2Getting to Hradec Králové from Prague was the easy leg of the trip, only taking one hour and 15 minutes courtesy of the comfortable Student Agency buses with plush seating. I had an hour before my connection, which would take me to Broumov on a journey lasting two and a half hours.

I had wanted to visit Broumov for about 10 years, but I was always put off by the four-hour or longer bus ride to get there. I do not like traveling by bus. A four-hour trip seemed too much to bear.

This time, though, I was determined finally to see the monastery that many of my friends had praised. Unfortunately, I would not have time to explore any of the rock formations near my destination, a town at the Polish border of northeast Bohemia.

My connecting bus pulled up on time. I spent about an hour reading about the monastery’s history. The town, I found out, had been established as far back as the 13th century. The first mentioning of the monastery that I could find came from 1306, when the Benedictines began to run a grammar school there. Several of the students would make names for themselves in Czech history: Arnošt of Pardubice, who served as the first Archbishop of Prague during the middle of the 14th century; writer Alois Jirásek; and the first Czechoslovak Minister of Finance, Alois Rašín. The history of the school was fraught with trials and tribulations, though. The Hussites destroyed it during 1420, and the uprising of the Bohemian Estates from 1618 to 1620 during the Thirty Years’ War also forced the school to shut its doors. The history of the uprising was intriguing, to say the least. Holy Roman Emperor Matthias had appointed Ferdinand as his heir, which caused a major fuss among the Protestants because Ferdinand abhorred Protestantism.

Broumov3I also read that in the early 17th century, Protestants constructed their own church near the Lower Gate of the monastery, causing much friction. Even though Emperor Ferdinand II ordered it to be shut down and put some rebels in prison, the church remained open. This Catholic-Protestant conflict in Broumov helped instigate the Prague defenestration of vice-governors on May 23, 1618, when the two representatives Ferdinand had sent to oversee the Czech government at Prague Castle were pushed out a window along with the secretary. (They survived because they fell on a pile of horse manure.) This marked the Second Defenestration of Prague and triggered the Bohemian Revolt.

That is when the directors of the Bohemian Estates confiscated the monastery, which was purchased by the citizens of the town. The complex was returned to the Benedictines after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, when the Catholics, led by Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II’s army, defeated the Protestant Bohemians. The monastery was in ruins but was restored. The school was not closed again until 1939, when the Nazis controlled the complex. Benedictines from the USA oversaw the monastery from 1945 to 1948, but then the Communists took over, and the American monks went home. During 1950 the monastery became an internment camp for monks. It was not returned to the Benedictines until 1990.

To get to the monastery, I had to walk through the main square. Renaissance house number 105 boasted of a portal from 1595. I noticed two buildings in Neo-Renaissance style as well. The monastery was practically on the square. I purchased my ticket and gazed at the Baroque statues of saints on the balustrade of the monastery’s terrace before the tour began. Saint Prokop, in almost fluttering drapery, proudly gripped a cross. The Baroque masterpieces seemed to twist and turn on their own and gave the exterior a dramatic and dynamic atmosphere.

First, we entered the Church of Saint Vojtěch (Adalbert) – a Baroque wonderland thanks to Italian builder Martin Allio and the Dientzenhofer team of father Kryštof and son Kilián Ignáz during the 18th century. (The Dientzenhofers remodeled the other monastery buildings in Baroque style as well.) I was overwhelmed by the pink fresco-filled ceiling with white stucco décor. I felt dizzy with awe as I peered at the fresco showing the death of Saint Vojtěch. In the Saint Benedict Chapel, white angels fluttered amidst spiraling pink columns. In the choir I admired the carved wooden benches with gold decoration as well as the frescoes above them.  The 20-something guide with long blond hair pointed out a rendering of “The Last Supper”. The main altar, dating from 1706, was not disappointing, either. Flanked by Saint Václav (Wenceslas) and Saint John of Nepomuk, Saint Vojtěch stands proudly in the middle.

Broumov4Next, we went upstairs to the library – one of my favorite rooms on any tour. Originally, there were three libraries with a total of 67,000 books, but now only one remained, and the number of books has dwindled to 17,000. The guide explained that during the totalitarian regime, Communists threw books out the window. Other books went to Prague, and still others were stolen.  I tried to imagine someone hurling these exquisite volumes outside, but it was too painful. It was just one of the many ways that the Communists tried to suffocate Czech culture. Once again, I was reminded of how horrific the totalitarian era was. The reading material that remained was written in Latin, Spanish, French and Czech, among other languages. The books dealt with subjects such as law and history, the guide remarked, showing us a seven-volume set of The Old Testament, which made up the heaviest books. Each weighed 20 kilograms. I was moved by the portraits decorating the balustrade and the frescoes that adorned the ceiling. The illustrated manuscripts featured in display cases were a treat, too.

Downstairs to the first floor, we entered the refectory. The treasure in the room was one of 40 copies of the Shroud of Turin, discovered in the Saint Cross chapel during 1999. What a day that must have been! Imagine discovering a 17th century relic three centuries later!

Supposedly, Jesus Christ was wrapped in the original shroud after his body was taken down from the cross. Those who believe in its authenticity argue that an impression of a coin circulated at the time of Jesus of Nazareth’s death was shown on one of the eyes. Originally kept in Constantinople, it has been stored in Turin since the 16th century.

Made in 1651, this copy – the only one found north of the Alps – was a gift to Broumov Abbot Sobek of Bílenberk from Turin Bishop Bergirius. The shroud featured a brown impression of Christ’s body with a light outline. For some reason I had expected the impression to be more pronounced and the outline more visible, darker. Still, it was exciting to be able to see such a significant piece.

Broumov12In the corridor we stopped at three charts on boards. One denoted events from the 19th century, marking that the cholera epidemic had ravaged the region during 1836. A board from 1812 showed that hop-plant was the most expensive product that year.

Then the tour guide asked who wanted to see the mummies. I did not know anything about any mummies there, but, curious, I tagged along with two others. We walked deep down into the crypt. In two spaces I saw 20 mummies of 17th and 18th century townspeople in open coffins. There were 32 mummies in all, but only 20 were on display, the guide remarked. Then she explained that due to renovation work in Vamberk, the mummies had been kept here since 2000. She did not know when they would return home. I was aghast that the mummies were so small, the size of children rather than most adults. For a moment I was brooding and philosophical. I wondered if that is all there is after life. You wind up in a coffin, there is no God, no Heaven. You are stuck in a dark place for eternity. Moved by the sight of the open caskets, I tried not to dwell on those depressing thoughts and instead marveled at the mummies’ preservation.

The tour ended, and I went to the museum in the monastery, six halls focusing on 700 years of the Broumov region’s rich history. Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque objects were just a few of the attractions. Weapons, folk nativity scenes, shooting targets and regional folk costumes rounded out the permanent exhibition. There was also an exhibition of clocks – from ornate Baroque clocks to 20th century alarm clocks. The most intriguing object for me was the poster announcing that this region – the former Sudetenland with a German majority – was being incorporated into The Third Reich. The German citizens had been enthusiastic about it, I remember reading. They had welcomed the Munich Agreement of 1938 that ceded Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland to Hitler. And I thought of the Beneš decrees instigated after World War II when Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš expelled all Germans from the Sudetenland. History had certainly made a poignant mark on this seemingly tranquil town. Looking at that poster, I saw the brutality of 20th century events that had seeped throughout the region.

Wooden church in Broumov

Wooden church in Broumov

Next, I made my way toward the hospital. Across the street was a small cemetery with an exquisite wooden church – the Church of the Virgin Mary – that is the oldest preserved all-wood construction in Central Europe. There may have been a church on this site as far back as the 12th century, when this part of town made up a village. Legend has it that the church was built by a pagan princess during 1171. However, the first written documentation of its existence dates from 1383. In 1421 the church was destroyed by the Hussites, though the extent of the destruction is uncertain. The current church was constructed by the Benedictines in 1449. The Gothic structure had a single nave with a trihedral end and a steep gabled roof. A pyramid steeple punctuated the building. The ground floor was surrounded by an open gallery, and the interior was covered with planks.

The main altar

The exquisite interior of the church

The tombstones outside the church

The tombstones outside the church

The art work was incredible. There was a remarkable stencil mural on a wall. I admired the black stencil motifs of geometric shapes and vegetables on the ceiling and walls, too. The main altar depicted the Virgin Mary looking up to Heaven, surrounded by a gold frame supported by two angels. Two columns were situated behind the angels. A huge halo dominated the top of the exquisite structure. 

Another photo of the interior of the church

Another photo of the interior of the church

After spending about a half hour in that modest yet fascinating architectural gem, I had lunch in a hotel restaurant with a garden and terrace. There was a fountain and statuary in the garden that seemed to belong to a palace. The prices were the same as the pizzeria I often visited in downtown Prague, yet the dining atmosphere was much classier. I felt as if I were at a resort.

My stomach filled with delicious chicken and diet Coke, I walked around the corner to the bus stop. It would be a four-hour journey back to Prague on the direct bus. I was surprised to find out that there was no break during the trip, such as a 10-minute interval to use the bathrooms. I did have five minutes in Náchod, though, where I raced around the corner to the train station restroom and made it back with a minute to spare. While the skies had foreshadowed rain during my entire trip, it did not start pouring until I got off the bus at the Černý Most Metro station in Prague. Still, nothing could damper my excitement about a trip that had been well worth the arduous journey.Broumov5

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

Vyšší Brod Monastery Diary

Vyssi Brod MonasteryWhile staying in the picturesque southern Bohemian town of Český Krumlov, I took a day trip to the nearby Cistercian monastery Vyšší Brod, located in the town by the same name and nestled in the Šumava mountains region. Now once again the property of the Cistercian Order, the monastery, founded in 1259 and built over a period of 100 years, still retains a Gothic appearance with features of both Early and Late Gothic architecture, as I noticed upon my arrival.


First, I stepped into the church itself and especially took note of the high altar and the side altar of the Virgin Mary. Built from 1644 to 1646, the Early Baroque high altar is made of brown gilded wood. I loved how it was adorned with statues, such as those of Saint Eugene the Pope and Saint Bernard. A sculpture of the Crowning of the Virgin Mary and another of the Holy Trinity also impressed me.


The side altar of the Virgin Mary boasted a valuable panel painting of the Madonna of Vyšší Brod by the Master of Vyšší Brod sometime after 1400. Set against a golden background, the blond Mother of God cradled a naked baby Jesus while angels hovered above her and saints posed at the sides.


Then there were the abbots’ tombstones, some in Mannerist style and others from the Baroque era I also saw the wood inlaid and gilded choir studded with Baroque statues of various saints. A glance upwards and I was looking at exquisite Gothic stained glass windows decorated with themes from the lives of saints.


An art lover, I was enthusiastic to see the monastery’s art collection. Mostly Gothic and Baroque, it featured many Dutch and Flemish works (yes!) as well as Baroque creations by Czech artists such as Petr Brandl (one of the Baroque painters I hold dearest!). Baroque seascapes and landscapes by Norbert Grund and František Xavier Palko’s rendition of the 12 apostles and a portrait by Czech master Jan Kupecký were among the dazzling canvases in the exhibition. I especially liked Grund’s landscapes.


Soon it was time to visit the library, which held 70,000 volumes, making it the third largest Czech monastic library. Only Strahov and Teplá boasted more books. I set my eyes on Rococo bookcases dating from 1756. Works from 1500 to 1800 made up part of the collection, though some pieces dated as far back as the 13th century. A five-volume Latin Bible also caught my attention. It hailed from the early 14th century. Chants of the Cistercian Order were written at the turn of the 15th century.


VyssiBrod1Then our group came to the Library Corridor, which is home to 19th century and early 20th century collections written mostly in Latin and German. We moved on to the Philosophical Hall where books about such subjects as math, biology, and chemistry as well as German dictionaries are stored. The astounding fresco on the ceiling was the work of Lukáš Vávra. Latin quotations by Saint Bernard promoting education could be seen above the windows. In the center of the room I was blown away by a detailed map of the Czech lands that featured even the tiniest villages from the 1600s. I was awed by the attention to detail.


The Theological Hall was best known for keeping one of the largest collections of bibles in Central Europe, and the holy books in the collection come in 40 languages. Can you believe it? The white pigskin bindings hailed from the middle of the 18th century. Another fresco by Vávra adorned the ceiling, this one showing a 12-year old Jesus in a temple. The guide pointed out something intriguing about the painting. If you look closely, you notice that some of the things featured in the fresco didn’t exist when Jesus was alive. For example, one man donned glasses, another held a book, and there was glass in a window. The style of clothing and the architecture were also ahead of their time. Then the tour ended.


On the main square in the town, only steps away from the monastery, I found a restaurant in a hotel where I was able to have my favorite chicken with peaches and cheese. Then I stood across the street, waiting for the bus back to Český Krumlov, but it seemed that I had the wrong information. It would be another two hours before a bus came along, according to the schedule at the stop. I spent another hour in the restaurant, downing Viennese-style coffee and glasses of nonsparkling water and then stood at the bus stop for a while on that nice, though crisp, day. I let my mind wander and just succumbed to the feeling of happiness that overwhelmed me.

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