Kladruby Monastery Diary

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Kuks Diary

Kuks7It was almost 6:30 a.m., and the music on the bus was funereal – so depressing that I felt as if a heavy weight had descended upon my shoulders. It had taken me almost an hour to get to the Černý Most Metro and bus station, after leaving home on the 5:04 tram.

We made it to the Hradec Králové bus station in about an hour and 15 minutes. There, I had enough time to get the 8:20 to Kuks, a village where a former hospital, Baroque in style, was surrounded by 24 statues by legendary Czech sculptor Matyáš Braun. It also housed one of the oldest and most valuable pharmacies in the land.

The bus to Kuks took half an hour. I only knew I was there because I saw a sign with the name of the village on a small wooden shack along the highway. I got off the bus and felt lost. I looked to my right: there was a large field, nobody in sight. To my left a building and a road. I reasoned that the village must be down the road; there must someone in the area to ask for directions.  I was right:  it only took only 15 minutes to come to the end of the big park in front of Kuks’ former hospital. I walked on the long path and up the stairs flanked by Matthias Bernard Braun’s 24 Late Baroque statues of Virtues and Vices.

Kuks4I walked around Braun’s Baroque statues that seemed to be swirling and twisting and turning as I snapped photos of Love, Despair, Sloth, Sincerity, Faith, Virtue, Jealousy and Hope, to name a few. Then I went to the garden behind the hospital and took shots of the eight statues of the muses and the dominating statue, that of the Big Christian Fighter, wielding a sword and shield, with a godlike appearance as he defended Christianity against religious violence.

There were three tours. I took the one concentrating on the historical interior first. In the first room there were portraits on the walls.  An intriguing one showed a woman on her death bed, which was surrounded by candles. I could almost see them flickering.

Kuksgarden1The second room featured a model of the former Kuks hospital for veterans and the spa that used to be across from it, until it was destroyed by a flood in 1740. The model harkened back to 1725, when the spa was flourishing. The guide pointed out a church, a wooden theatre and astronomical clock that used to be part of the village as well as the pub, erected in 1699 and still operating on the other side of the village. She also pointed out the River Labe that separated the monastery hospital from the spa as well as the Philosophers’ House, a two-storey Baroque villa, where the founder of the hospital and spa, Count František Antonín Špork, had kept his library of 40,000 volumes.

Kuksgarden5Then we went out in the courtyard, where the guide pointed out the statue of the Small Christian Fighter gripping a sword that had turned green with age. From there we stepped into the lapidarium, where the original 24 sandstone statues by Braun were displayed. The swirling maelstrom of gigantic Baroque images left me in awe.  I always seem to feel overwhelmed when face-to-face with Baroque artworks. Dating from 1718-1720, the statues included Faith, who leaned against a cross, donning lush drapery. Hope had an anchor and was gazing upwards. Patience featured a girl with a ram as she held one hand to her bosom. Wisdom had faces on both sides of the head, one looking back and the other looking forward, one face gazing into a mirror. Sincerity, clad in fantastically swirling drapery, was portrayed as a girl with a heart in the palm of her hand, gripping it to her own heart.

The Annunciation of the Virgin Mary Chapel was next. Two exquisite reliquaries with Baroque golden frames were placed on either side of a wooden Christ on the cross. On one wall there was a huge tabular of Bethlehem, painted in the 19th century. A figure of a sheep was curled up, asleep, next to Jesus’ crib.

Kuksgarden10Next door was the church – The Holy Trinity. The altar featured the resurrection of Lazarus. Images of God the Father and the Holy Ghost sparkled in gold. On one side of the main columned altar stood a golden Saint Peter, holding a key. On the other side was a golden Saint Paul, armed with a sword. The Rococo pulpit glinted in gold as well. Four other altars took up space, two bigger ones and two smaller. The organ above was Baroque and the columns in the church Corinthian.

There was much to see in the hallway. From the old worn-away frescoes I could make out the figures in “Death with a Madman” that portrayed a dancing skeleton with the insane figure and “Death with a Cardinal,” in the other. I wondered how appealing This “Dance of Death” cycle must have been to the patients who may have strolled down the corridors.

Kuksstatue4The ancient pharmacy was next on the list. Called the Granat Apples, it featured various medicine jars on shelves behind the counter. The colorful display consisted of jars made from glass, ceramics and wood, for example. On the counter was a figure of a tree with golden apples and hanging scales. There were weighing scales on the counter as well as a bottle of Atropen, a poison that makes the user go blind if it is used for a lengthy period of time.

Kuksstatue5The pharmaceutical museum was the highlight of the second tour. A prescription for eye drops, written out for the first democratic president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, was displayed under glass on one counter. The paper was scribed in fancy, black lettering. The guide pointed out various poisons, which were marked in white letters on black labels. As I went through centuries of pharmaceutical history in the museum, I stopped to look at a cash register with paper numbers that came up. It hailed from the beginning of the 20th century. You could stir mixes for medicines in bowls yourself, if you so desired. Machines from various pharmacies were also featured in the museum. In a cabinet I saw a jar full of bones from an Egyptian mummy.

Kuksstatue6The guide was careful to point out the cabinet for poisons, such as Strychnitr. I was impressed with the traveling first aid kit from the 19th century. Small glass bottles had been placed in a wooden case that had a floral decoration on the underside of the lid. I didn’t understand why boxes of the contemporary medicine of Jox spray were there for viewing. They were situated next to a pale green box marked Vomitin. Then the guide demonstrated how to make tablets smaller by using a machine and also showed us how to mix tablets with another machine. It was quite intriguing. She also demonstrated how to prepare a tablet from powder with a hammer.

Kuksstatue16For the third tour I went into the crypt below the church. The group was ushered down a dark corridor toward the main altar, decorated with cherubs holding one hand over their eyes and holding skulls in their hands. In the center of the altar was a skull. Looming behind and above the altar was Braun’s masterpiece of Christ on the Cross.  In the darkness, thanks to the guide’s flashlight, we were able to make out coffins of the Špork family members. Only one coffin did not belong to a member of the clan. In a small coffin lay the midget Anežka Tarnovská, who died at age 90 and had worked as a cook on the estate. She saved František Špork’s life when she informed him about a plan to poison him. Finally, we were ushered out of the dark, damp space.

Kuksstatue28Famished at noon because I had eaten breakfast at 3 a.m., I walked to the Chateau Restaurant, only to find that it had been replaced by a small snack bar offering sausages and other fatty foods I did not like. I went for the ham and cheese sandwich, which wasn’t bad. Since it had started raining, I headed for the waiting room near the box office and wrote postcards there. I had wanted to trek the three kilometers to Braun’s outdoor Bethlehem statues called “The Nativity,” but I wasn’t about to venture into a forest when it was raining so hard. I had walked through a forest to get to and from Rožmberk Castle in the Šumava region during a severe thunderstorm some years ago; I didn’t care to repeat the experience. I had read that the biblical statues were carved directly into the sandstone rock. It certainly would have been an amazing sight to behold.

So, without seeing Braun’s Bethlehem, I wound my way back to the wooden shack on the highway, waiting for the bus that would take me back to Hradec Králové. It came on time, but the bus going to Prague didn’t. The 15:13 didn’t show up. Instead there was a 15:35. While it took an hour and 15 minutes to get to Hradec Králové from Prague, the return trip lasted at least two hours, a good half hour in Prague itself, going from the Černý Most Metro and bus station to the Florenc main bus station. There was a positive side to the ride back, though. During the trip home, before reaching Prague, I saw field after field of sunflowers, postcard perfect scenes of ravishing nature.Image

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