It 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.
I 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.
The 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.
Then 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.
Next 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
For 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.
Famished 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.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.