When I arrived at the Duomo in Milan with my camera, it was about six am. I hadn’t been able to sleep because I was so anxious about my exciting itinerary for my first full day in the city. The large square was almost empty, though an occasional jogger passed through. I spent at least an hour walking around the cathedral, gazing at the exterior decoration – the spires, the large windows, the flying buttresses, the rich sculptural adornment, the gargoyles and more.
The Duomo is an architectural gem with a dominating Gothic exterior. It is the symbol of the city I would grow quickly to love. The Milan Cathedral ranks as the largest church in the country, though St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is bigger. The cathedral is one of the largest in the world. Construction started in 1386 and didn’t end until 1965, spanning six centuries. It has 135 spires, the first finished in 1404. Some of its150 gargoyles harken back to the 14th century.
While the style of the cathedral does not correspond to only one type, many features are in French Gothic style, such as the flying buttresses and rib vault. The statuary on the exterior stems from various eras. Some statues were created from 1418 to the middle of the 16th century, placed in niches of capitals of pillars. Many more were created in the 18th century in Late Baroque style. External statuary of the prophets and apostles are in Neo-Classical style. New stained-glass windows were installed in 1470. The construction of the façade started in 1590 in late Mannerist style and was finished in Neo-Gothic style under the guidance of Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign in the 1800s. Using the art of painting on glass, new stained-glass windows were made from 1829 to 1858. During the 19th century more spires were constructed, and the roof terraces were finished. Flying buttresses also appeared as did more statues.
Bombing during August of 1943 damaged the structure, but it was reconstructed. The wooden doors were replaced with bronze ones. The main façade was renovated from 2003 to 2009 in Candoglia marble.
Because the cathedral was not yet open, I was able to study its closed bronze doors. One showed the history of life of Mary with floral reliefs. Another depicted the history of Milan and yet another the history of the cathedral itself. The reliefs on the doors were incredible. I saw the Assumption, the Sacrifice of Cain, David with the Head of Goliath, the Tower of Babel and other biblical pictorial renditions. The floral and animal decoration on the central door was outstanding, too. The tympanium was worth noting, too. The one in the central portal showed off the Creation of Eve.
Later that morning, I walked on the sloping terraces of the roof with its pinnacles and spires on flying buttresses. Gazing at the sheer beauty of the cathedral’s exterior from high up was astounding. I spotted the octagonal lantern from the 15th century with its Madonnina statue from 1769. The Madonnina reaches more than four meters high. The total height of the cathedral is 108.5 meters. The view of the city and spires was phenomenal. It was calming and soothing seeing all the people so far below. Up there I didn’t have a reason to rush or worry. It made me think of how we have to open ourselves to new perspectives when traveling. This applies in daily life as well. Whenever I had a pessimistic attitude, I had to try to see the problem from a fresh perspective that would give me a more positive outlook.
After my visit to the roof terraces, it was time to take a look inside the cathedral. I had expected the cathedral to impress me, even to overwhelm me with its beauty, and it had done just that. I made my way down the narrow spiral staircase to the ground floor, certain I would continue to be amazed at the beauty of such an architectural gem.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
I have been a fan of Alphonse Mucha’s Art Nouveau works ever since I came to Prague in the 1990s. While he is best known for his exhilarating posters of actress Sarah Bernhardt, Mucha was a very versatile artist – as is evidenced in this comprehensive exhibition of creations owned by his descendants. The first extensive showing of his works in 30 years is housed at Prague’s Waldstein Palace. The exhibition highlights not only the advertising posters but also his drawings, paintings, sculptures, photos and jewelry, for instance. The family displays some originals to the public for the first time.
Family portraits evoking Mucha’s childhood add an intimate feel to the exhibition. Born in Ivančice, Moravia, Mucha called home a building that also included the town jail. The Czech lands were under Austrian rule when Mucha grew up. They were part of the Habsburg Empire in which German was the official language. Yet, during that era, the Czech National Revival took place, when Czech nationalists promoted Czech culture and the Czech language.
At the end of 1894, Mucha became a star overnight when he designed a poster for Bernhardt’s production of Gismonda. The following year he created posters that decorated calendars, postcards and menus as well as theatre programs. His work would find enthusiastic audiences in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Munich, London, New York and other cities during subsequent years.
I loved how, in his advertising posters, Mucha utilized folk features not only found in Czech art but also in Byzantine, Islamic, Japanese, Gothic, Judaic, Celtic and Rococo works. Much of this genre focuses on beautiful, young women with an optimistic and cheerful flair. They are wearing flowing robes in pastel colors. I loved the touches of floral and plant ornamentation plus arabesques and naturalistic elements, too.
The exhibition boasted family portraits and photos, such as those of his friends Paul Gaugin and Auguste Rodin. Gaugin even was Mucha’s housemate for a while. During the Paris Exposition Universalle of 1900, Mucha represented Austria-Hungary as the show focused on the accomplishments of the past century. I had not known that in 1899 Mucha had designed a jewelry collection that was featured at this major show. One of the jewelry pieces on display at the exhibition features a snake-shaped broach that Bernhardt wore during her portrayal as Medusa. I also was captivated by Mucha’s decorations for a German theatre in the USA. He would wind up making three trips to the United States, hailed by The New York Daily News as “the world’s greatest decorative artist.”
Works in the exhibition illustrated how mysticism had influenced him. His philosophy is also apparent in his creations. For example, he believed in beauty, truth and love to guide him on the spiritual path. For a monument he created a triptych called The Age of Reason, the Age of Wisdom and the Age of Love, fusing these three characteristics into one piece of art. Unfortunately, Mucha didn’t get the chance to finish it.
Perhaps what always captivates me the most about Mucha’s art is his emphasis on Slav identity. Indeed, his phenomenal Slav Epic paintings feature the heroic tales of the Slavs in 20 historical, symbolic canvases. Several reproductions of these works at the exhibition reinforced Mucha’s identity as a Czech and Slav patriot.
I saw panels devoted to Mucha’s decorations in the Municipal House, for which he designed numerous pieces – three wall panels, a ceiling painting depicting prominent Czech personalities, eight pendentives and furnishings. I remember seeing these for myself on tours of the Art Nouveau Municipal House, something I recommend to every Prague visitor. It is notable that, while Mucha’s works often were rooted in Slav identity in the past, he also looked to the future for a prosperous Czech nation.
I was enamored by the reproductions of his stained-glass window designs. The originals decorate the interior of Saint Vitus’ Cathedral at Prague Castle. In 1931 he portrayed Saint Wenceslas, the nation’s patron saint, as a child with his grandmother Saint Ludmila in a central panel along with other panels featuring the lives and work of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Seeing examples of his colorful and vibrant stained glass renditions close-up was for me one of the highlights of this exhibition.
Mucha’s life was cut short by the arrival of the Nazis in Prague, where they set up the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during March of 1939. The 79-year-old Mucha, riddled with health problems, was targeted by the Gestapo. Mucha was a Freemason, Judeophile and a promoter of democratic Czechoslovakia. He was one of the first to be interrogated by the Nazis. Mucha was stricken with pneumonia due to the strain from grueling interrogations and died in Prague 10 days short of his 79th birthday on July 14th, 1939. He is now buried in Prague’s Vyšehrad Cemetery along with other prominent Czechs.
This exhibition takes museumgoers on a unique and unforgettable journey from his childhood roots in Moravia to his time as an outsider in Paris to his experiences in the democratic Czechoslovakia until his untimely death. It stresses his identity as a Moravian, as a Czech, as a Slav and as a European. It shows his accomplishments in the art scene by displaying an eclectic collection of his creations that profoundly punctuated the artistic world.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
When I visited the Cathedral Museum in Milan, I didn’t expect it to be so big. The museum measured 2,000 meters square, and there were 26 rooms. Set up in chronological order, the artifacts included stained glass windows, paintings, tapestries, architectural models, sculpture, bronze doors, goldsmithing artifacts and more. The museum, located on the ground floor of the Palazzo Reale, allowed me to see the various phases of construction from its foundation in 1386 to the 20th century. The museum dates back to 1953. Ten more rooms were added in 1960, and it was reopened in 1973. It underwent major renovation during this century, too.
Placed in the museum during 2013 after renovation was completed, the Treasures of the Cathedral are on display in two rooms and feature liturgical objects from the 5th to the 17th century. I saw the Cross of Chiaravalle, a masterpiece of Romanesque goldsmithing art. The Cross of San Carlo was another goldsmithing object that amazed. It was made in Mannerist style during the 1500s. The cross is even used in cathedral ceremonies new archbishops are inaugurated. La Pace di Pio V, dated around 1565, utilized lapis lazuli decoration on columns and a sarcophagus. The cross was studded with diamonds. Gold decoration added to its beauty. Il Calice delle Arti Liberali is a chalice placed on a copper gilded frame. Made in Milan during the 1500s, the chalice has enamel decoration.
Perhaps my favorite part of the museum was the section with the stained-glass windows. I was enthusiastic about having the opportunity to see stained-glass windows up close. These panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament had been created by artists from Lombardy, France, Germany and the Netherlands. I loved stained-glass windows, and they were my favorite part of the cathedral’s interior. I spent so much time staring at those windows when I was inside the cathedral.
The sculpture was another delight. The marble Late Gothic figures hailed from the first 50 years of the cathedral’s construction. There were also statues made of terracotta from the Mannerist and Baroque eras. A few of the noteworthy sculptures featured Saint Agnes, Saint George and Galeazzo Maria Sforza. The Sforza noble family had had a vast influence on the city’s development and politics. I also was amazed by the gargoyles. I was thrilled that I had the chance to see them close up.
A model of the entire cathedral comprised three centuries of work and was made at a scale of 1:20. Another model that caught my attention was an early 16th century wooden rendition of the cathedral, made by Bernardino Zenale from Treviglio. This model provided insights into the structural development of the various sections of the cathedral, such as the apse, transept and tiberium.
I found the objects in the museum stunning. I was flabbergasted by their beauty. I had expected a small museum of liturgical items, not such an amazing array of artifacts. I had learned how the cathedral had been constructed in various eras and about the main players in the history of the structure.
Leaving the Museo del Duomo, I was very satisfied with my visit and ready for the temporary Titian exhibition in the Palazzo Reale.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
Steep steps took me to the top of Český Šternberk, a massive Gothic structure that has an interior just as exciting as its colossal exterior. I had been there more times than I could count – with tour groups, friends, alone. The castle loomed over the surrounding countryside as it was situated 350 meters above sea level. When I had been on a tour of churches in the Posazaví region, our bus had even stopped in front of the castle because it dominated the area. This time I had come by car with a friend. We donned masks during the tour because of rules concerning the pandemic.
Whenever I visited this castle, I thought of George from Australia, my sixtyish friend whom I had met on a tour here in 1993. We spent some time together during his stay in Prague that summer and then became pen pals. About a year later, I received a letter from his daughter saying that he had died unexpectedly. I hadn’t known him well, but it was shocking all the same. So, whenever I come here, I realize how important it is to make good of the time you have with friends because they won’t be there forever.
Soon I gave the castle my full attention. I focused on the exciting history of Český Šternberk. Inside, it was hard to miss the eight-pointed star that symbolized the Sternbergs (in English the dynasty is spelled Sternberg not Šternberk), a name that harkens back to the original owner of the castle. In the mid-13th century, Zděslav of Divišov was responsible for the construction of this castle. He changed his name to a combination of the German word for star (stern) and the word for hill (berk).
In the Knights’ Hall, the vast first room, a portrait of Czech King George of Poděbrady, who had been related to the Sternbergs, hung prominently. A coat-of-arms representing the marriage of George of Poděbrady to Kunhata of Sternberg featured prominently in the space along with many other intriguing coat-of-arms. Indeed, George of Poděbrady influenced the history of the castle. During the 15th century Hussite wars, Catholics including castle owner Petr Sternberg fought against Hussite Czech King George of Poděbrady, who promoted the Utraquist religion. In 1465 Zdeněk Konopistský Sternberg even fought against George of Poděbrady, who was victorious and even destroyed the castle. George of Poděbrady would be the only ruler to conquer Český Šternberk.
Reconstruction took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Thirty Year’s War caused much damage and other difficulties. Still, the castle survived. Due to early Baroque reconstruction in the second half of the 17th century, Český Šternberk could no longer be used for defensive purposes. When the last member of the Holič branch of the Sternbergs passed away, there was not an heir, and the Sternbergs lost the castle. However, they would make a comeback in 1841 when Zdeněk Sternberg purchased it. The castle would remain in the family until 1949. The Communists took over the castle in 1949, but owner Jiří Sternberg was allowed to reside at the castle with his family in two small rooms. Jiří worked as a castle guide during the totalitarian period. He died in 1964. Due to his diligence and attention to detail, a precise inventory was created. This is why it is possible to see many of the original possessions there. A few years after the Velvet Revolution, Zdeněk Sternberg received the castle in restitution. Some 20 generations of Sternbergs have worked and lived there since the castle was built.
The first room, the Knights’ Hall, has always been my favorite. Every time I stepped inside, I felt overwhelmed by the beauty of the large space with 17th century stucco decoration and two Czech crystal chandeliers weighing 250 kilograms each. An eight-pointed Sternberg star decorated the floor. On the walls portraits of generals from the Thirty Years’ War stared at me. George of Poděbrady’s painting also made an appearance. A variety of chairs were situated in this space. Some cozy-looking seating dated from the early 20th century while others hailed from the Gothic and Renaissance periods. I especially was drawn to the 17th century Florentine cabinet. The semi-precious stones and pieces of marble decorating it were sublime.
The Sternberg star was evident in the Dining Room, too, another of my favorites and the second largest room. A Bethlehem star was shining in the night sky of a painting of the Three Kings adoring Jesus. Of course, the star had eight points.
I loved the wall painting of idyllic landscapes in the Yellow Salon. I also was captivated by yellow because it had been the color of my mom’s kitchen, where I grew up. The color symbolized for me my mother’s optimism and calming voice telling me my problems would soon be solved, the sun would soon be out. The ceiling was captivating, too. The 18th century stucco ornamentation was amazing. In the Ladies’ Lounge, the ceiling was no less spellbinding. I was enamored by the Baroque frescoes above me. It intrigued me that the 18th century Rococo chairs lacked armrests. Ladies had donned such wide and huge dresses that the armrests were not needed. I would have loved to have been seated at the writing desk hailing from the second Rococo period. What kind of letters would I have written at that desk decorated with carved ivory? Perhaps letters to my parents and friends in the USA.
I also was excited to find some Dutch Baroque furniture in another space. The furnishings had a floral theme. Some paintings showing the Thirty Year’s War were on display here, examples of battle scenes from the 545 paintings in the Sternberg’s collection that depicted the conflict. My favorite of these renditions is the one showing the Charles Bridge. Back then, it was the only bridge joining both banks of the Vltava River.
The main altar in the chapel was home to the painting called The Passion of Saint Sebastian as the religious space is dedicated to that saint. What I liked best about the library was a painting that was said to be Apostle Peter, though he is depicted without attributes. The surprised expression on the face of the figure with the thick beard intrigued me. It was probably created by my favorite Baroque painter, Petr Brandl. I recalled his paintings in the cathedral of Sedlec near Kutná Hora. I had been enamored by so many of his works throughout the decades.
I was also astonished at the beauty of the Oriental Antechamber, which was decorated in furniture made from mother-of-pearl and ivory. I have always loved visiting Oriental rooms in castles and chateaus because they remind me of my mother’s fondness for antique Chinese porcelain and how I had come by pieces in various cities in different countries.
A painting that interested me in the hallway that showcased a variety of artifacts at the end of the tour was one by Filip Sternberg, a talented artist who had studied under the tutelage of Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha. My parents and friends always enjoyed visiting the Mucha Museum when they came to Prague. The rendition by Sternberg showed the Battle of Hradec Králové (also known as Koeniggraetz), which is situated in east Bohemia. During that 1866 conflict, the Austrians were defeated by the Prussians. Filip had painted the scene masterfully even though he had only been 14 years old when the actual battle had been fought.
I always leave this castle realizing it is one of the most beautiful castles in the Czech lands if not the most beautiful. This time we retreated to the restaurant below and had a delicious lunch before making our way back to Prague.
Rest In Peace, George.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
I had visited Blatná twice before, but not during the last five years. Those first two trips I had traveled to the south Bohemian town by bus, but now I had the luxury of going by car with a friend. Blatná is a chateau that makes an everlasting first impression as it is surrounded by water. By the summer of 2021, I knew very well that its romantic exterior was matched by an enthralling interior. Unfortunately, it was prohibited to take photos inside.
I already knew the history of the chateau, which harkened back to at least the 13th century, when the name first appeared in writing. Benedikt Reid, the acclaimed 15th century architect who helped designed Prague Castle, worked his magic on this chateau as well. The highlight for me was the Green Chamber with its exquisite Late Gothic art. The Sternbergs featured in the story of Blatná, as they had in the history of Český Šternberk Castle and Jemniště Chateau, which we had also visited during that summer of 2021. This family bought Blatná in 1541 and added a Renaissance palace.
Another clan played a major role in the chateau’s long and vibrant life. During 1798, Baron Karel Hildprandt purchased Blatná, and it remained his property until 1948. Even after the chateau was nationalized by the Communists that year, the Hildprandts were allowed to live there, albeit in two small rooms. When the Emperor of Ethiopia paid a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1959, he asked that the Hildprandt family be allowed to emigrate to his country. They got permission and resided in Ethiopia until the Soviets took charge in the 1970s. From there, the Hildprandts’ journey continued to Spain and West Germany. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution that triggered the end of Communist rule, the family got the chateau back. During 1992, the descendants returned to the chateau and later made their home there.
A legendary 19th century Czech scientist was connected with the chateau, too. Jan Evangelista Purkyně had lived and studied at Blatná. The library where he spent much of his time now holds 13,000 volumes. Acclaimed worldwide, he excelled as a physiologist, botanist, anatomist, poet and philosopher. He also contributed to the art of animated film. Purkyně translated poetry from German and Italian to Czech, especially the works of Friedrich Schiller. Other writings focused on slavistic studies and autobiography. He joined the Piarist Order when he was young, but he left and became a tutor to noble families. Later, he joined Prague’s medical faculty of Charles University as a professor. Holy Roman Emperor Franz Josef knighted him in 1868. I recalled that as a youth he had lived at Libochovice Chateau, where his father had worked. Libochovice was a marvelous chateau, one I had visited several times and had described in several articles.
Two spaces in Blatná made the chateau most notable. The Ethiopia Room was a delight with souvenirs from the Hildprandts’ tenure in that country. Unfortunately, during our 2021 tour, we did not see this room, although it was listed on our ticket.
The other remarkable space was the Green Chamber with Late Gothic frescoes. I saw plant motifs and coats-of-arms of well-known Czech noble families painted on the walls of this small space. There were many religious scenes as well. The birth of Christ and St. George fighting the dragon were the subjects of two frescoes that captured my undivided attention. I recalled the numerous Saint George relics housed at Konopiště Chateau, where my friend and I had been the previous summer. I had written articles about that chateau and the Saint George Museum as well. In the Green Chamber, Saints Wenceslas (Václav), Barbora and Markéta made appearances in religious scenes, too. One painting showed a landscape with Blatná in the background. I have always been mesmerized by this small space. It was so well-preserved, and the wall paintings were astounding. The Green Chamber was always the highlight of my visit.
The chapel was a thrill, too. It included Gothic vaulting and thin, high Gothic windows. The cheerful yellow color of the Baroque Salon reminded me of the yellow kitchen in my former parents’ home – a kitchen I would never see again because my parents had moved. I loved the intarsia furniture in this space. An English clock’s decoration showed the four seasons. I also was captivated by an Oriental jewel chest with hidden drawers. I recalled my visit to the extensive ruins of Rabí Castle when I saw that structure rendered in an impressive artwork. The Painting Gallery included a portrayal of a vast landscape on one wall and a superb chandelier made of Czech glass. A map in a hallway amazed. It hailed from the 17th century and was one of only two copies in existence. I saw Prague’s Charles Bridge before the statues had been built on it. I imagined strolling along the Charles Bridge sans the Baroque statues it was known for.
In the Hunting Salon some furniture was made from deer antlers. Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este visited occasionally to go on hunting trips with the Hildprandt owner. I recalled that during a previous visit, a guide had told our group that a chandelier had fallen during one of Ferdinand d’Este’s visits, but I didn’t remember anything about anyone being hurt.
In the Dining Room, I was drawn to the red-and-black chairs and the daiquiri green tiled stove. The 19th century Neo-Gothic furniture was impressive. Japanese plates decorate a wall of another space with a Neo-Renaissance tiled stove and chandelier in Empire style. I noticed some Egyptian features of the Empire furniture. In other spaces an exotic landscape graced a tapestry, and four paintings of the Italian seaside decorated a wall.
Drawings of Venice also captivated me. I remembered walking through Venice on an early Sunday morning some years ago when I practically had the city to myself. That was one of my favorite experiences in my travel adventures. A huge black Empire style tiled stove stood out in one space as did other Empire furniture, including the black-and-gold chandelier made in that 19th century style. In the Study of Jaroslav Rožmitál, I saw paintings of Adam and Eve plus renditions of saints George, Wenceslas and Catherine. A 1720 map of Bohemia in another space caught my attention, too.
The tours were comprehensive. We had all worn masks, so I had felt protected from coronavirus, and there were not many cases in the country at the time. Afterwards, my friend and I went to a hotel for lunch, the same restaurant where I had eaten during my previous visits. We both had the fried chicken steak, a popular meal in the Czech Republic. We talked about where we would travel the following week. Life was good.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
This past year my travel was once again marred by the dangers of the pandemic, and I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. I took day trips in the Czech Republic during the summer months, when the chateaus and castles were open. While I did not wander far from Prague, these trips did provide me with a fresh perspective of the world around me and of my own life. I tended to spend most of my time at home as a sort of recluse, and these trips offered me a chance to appreciate the world around me. Fears of getting coronavirus despite being vaccinated prevented me from gathering with friends in cafes. When I went on these trips, I traveled with a good friend, and that also helped keep me sane. We always went by car, which was much easier and much more comfortable than going by public transportation.
Our first trip in late May was to Lány, where the presidential summer residence was located along with its stunning park. I also visited an intriguing museum dedicated to the founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. I had named my cat Šarlota after the first First Lady of Czechoslovakia, American Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk. (Šarlota is Charlotte in Czech.) I also paid my respects to the Masaryk family at the cemetery nearby.
The museum highlights, for example, Masaryk’s time as head of the government-in-exile in London and his trip to the USA to convince US President Woodrow Wilson to support Czechoslovakia becoming a country of its own. Masaryk abdicated due to poor health after 17 years in office. His many accomplishments and problems during his tenure are well-explained in these exhibits. One section shows off the role of the Czechoslovak legions fighting in Russia as part of the French army during World War I. Intriguing information about society and sport during the First Republic are on display, too.
Then we went to the cemetery, where simple slabs mark the graves of Tomáš, his wife Charlotte (who died in 1923), son Jan and daughter Alice. I admired the modest yet eloquent gravestones in a quiet part of this cemetery. I recalled watching a film about Tomáš’ son Jan, a prominent politician whom the Communists pushed out a bathroom window to his death. I had visited the scene of the crime in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs palace some years ago, when an employee showed me around. I recalled that Tomáš, the first president of Czechoslovakia, had died at Lány chateau, where we were headed next.
Only the park was open to the public. I had fallen in love with this park during my first visit back in the summer of 1991, less than two years after the Velvet Revolution had toppled Communism in Czechoslovakia. Lány Chateau has served as the summer residence of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents since the state purchased it in 1921. From the late 17th century until 1921 it was the property of the Furstenberg family. In earlier days it had even been owned by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Masterful Slovenian architect Josip Plečník had decorated the park during Masaryk’s tenure. A symbolic, spectacular fountain, two ponds, three small bridges, a cottage with fairy-tale decoration, beehives and Neo-Gothic Riding Stables all mesmerized me along with a greenhouse. Walking down the main chestnut-lined path, I saw better the beauty of the world around me as well as the beauty inside me. I tried to imagine Masaryk riding one of his beloved horses in the park or seated on a bench talking with prominent Czech writer Karel Čapek, one of my favorite authors.
We made the trip to the fairy-tale bright red chateau Červená Lhota, which used to be surrounded by water. Alas, there is no water around it now. I recalled my first visit, when I was entranced by the reflection of the cheerful-looking structure in the pond. I also recalled my first attempted trip to the chateau, more than 15 years earlier, when I mistakenly traveled to another village with the same name in an entirely different part of the country. I also recalled the four friends I had made the first time I was successful at traveling to the chateau, walking the 10 kilometers from the train station while talking about life with my friendly companions.
The chateau got the name Červená Lhota – červená means red in Czech – during 1597, when it was painted that color. Legend claims that the devil had kidnapped a lady at the chateau, and she had died. After her murder, a spot of blood could be seen under a window of the then white façade. Another legend says that her blood had covered the chateau exterior, and the red color was permanent. Perhaps the family best associated with the chateau is the Schonburg-Hartenstein clan, who owned it from 1835 for 110 years. Indeed, the interior took its appearance from the start of the 20th century, when this family was in residence. We saw mostly authentic furnishings, which is always a treat. The painted ceilings, superb artwork, elaborate clocks, beautiful tiled stoves, intarsia-decorated furniture and graphics collection all held my undivided attention.
Another week we traveled about an hour from Prague to Jemniště Chateau, a Baroque gem completed about 1725, though most of it burned down in 1754 and had to be rebuilt. Leading Czech Baroque painter Václav Vavřinec Reiner and legendary Baroque sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun did some of the reconstruction. The Sternberg family took possession of the chateau in 1898, but it was confiscated by the Nazis in 1943 and then nationalized by the Communists in 1951. After the Velvet Revolution, the Sternbergs did get the chateau back, and some members of the family live there today.
The Main Hall was astounding with four portraits of Habsburg rulers on the walls, ceiling frescoes with mythological themes and a superb rendition of three allegories of the four seasons. In other spaces, I loved the Dutch Baroque furniture with colored woods. Saint Joseph’s Chapel featured remarkable frescoes.
Another trip took us to Český Sternberk Castle, which is, in my opinion, the most impressive of the three medieval castles in Central Bohemia, outdoing Karlštejn and Křivoklát. The exterior is imposing Gothic with a steep climb to the entrance gate. The interior spaces are decorated in various historical styles from Renaissance to Rococo. The castle dates back to the mid-thirteenth century, when Zdeslav of Divišov changed his name to Sternberg, the family that owns the castle today. When the Communists took the castle away from then owner Jiří Sternberg in 1949, he and his family still resided there, allowed to use only two small rooms. Jiří even gave tours of the castle. At long last, in 1992, the current owner got the property back.
The Knights’ Hall dated from around 1500 and features ornate 17th century stucco adornment. Life-size portraits on the walls showed generals from the Thirty Years’ War and King George of Poděbrady. Two 250-kilogram Czech crystal chandeliers amaze. This was the first but certainly not the last room where the eight-pointed Sternberg star had a prominent presence. The Yellow Salon featured its Empire wall painting of idyllic country scenes. The Dining Room showed off marvelous paintings. Dutch Baroque furniture with a floral motif graced another room. On the tour, we saw many renditions of battles – Sternberg owns 545 paintings of the battles during the Thirty Years’ War. Paintings by Filip Sternberg also are on display.
It was stupid of me to book a tour of Karlštejn Castle for a Friday afternoon. Traffic was hell, but there was nowhere to turn back. It was scorching hot. We walked up the steep road to the castle, gasping for air and needing a few short water breaks. Astounding Gothic Karlštejn Castle loomed above us. Its history was legendary. The castle was constructed for Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1348, and the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire had been stored there until 1420. Throughout the centuries, the castle would never be totally conquered. Even a seven-month siege by the Hussites in the 15th century was successfully warded off. I had been to Karlštejn many times but not for some years. The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary showed off beautiful 14th century frescoes. The walls of the small Chapel of Saint Catherine were decorated with exquisite frescoes and semi-precious stones.
Gothic frescoes are by no means in short supply on the tour that included the chapel. On one ceiling about 40 angels played various medieval instruments. The Chapel of the Holy Cross, the highlight of the tour, dazzled with its ornate decoration. Designed by Charles IV, the space featured semi-precious stones and 129 paintings of saints, popes, knights, emperors, martyrs, kings plus the Apostles and others. The legendary Master Theodoric, Charles IV’s court painter, created the impressive works. The gold ceiling was adorned with thousands of stars made from Venetian glass.
Unlike Červená Lhota, Blatná in south Bohemia was surrounded by water, adding a romantic flair to the already impressive structure. It was first mentioned in writing during the 13th century. Renovation during the 15th century was carried out in part by famous architect Benedikt Ried, who was responsible for designing part of Prague Castle. The highlight for me was the Green Chamber with its exquisite Renaissance art. The Sternbergs feature in the story of this chateau as well. They took control of the structure in 1541 and added a Renaissance palace. During 1798 Baron Karel Hildprandt bought it and held onto it until the chateau was nationalized in 1948. The family was able to live there, albeit in two small rooms, despite the takeover. In 1952 they were forced out, though. When the Emperor of Ethiopia paid a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1959, he asked that the Hildprandt family be allowed to emigrate to his country. They got permission and resided in Ethiopia until the Soviet coup in the 1970s. During 1992, the family returned to the chateau and made their home at Blatná.
The chapel includes Gothic vaulting and thin, high Gothic windows. The cheerful yellow color of the Baroque Salon reminded me of the yellow kitchen in my parents’ home – a kitchen I would never see again. I loved the intarsia furniture in this space. An English clock’s decoration showed the four seasons. I also was captivated by an Oriental jewel chest with hidden drawers. I recalled my visit to the extensive ruins of Rabí Castle when I saw that structure rendered in an impressive artwork. The Painting Gallery featured a rendition of a vast landscape on a wall and a superb chandelier made of Czech glass. A map in a hallway amazed. It hailed from the 17th century and was one of only two copies in existence. I saw Prague’s Charles Bridge before the statues had been built on it.
In the Hunting Salon some furniture was made from deer antlers. Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este visited occasionally to go on hunting trips with the Hildprandt owner. In the Dining Room, I was drawn to the red-and-black chairs and the daiquiri green tiled stove. The 19th century Neo-Gothic furniture was impressive. Japanese plates decorate a wall of another space with a Neo-Renaissance tiled stove and chandelier in Empire style. I noticed some Egyptian features of the Empire furniture. In other spaces an exotic landscape graced a tapestry and four paintings of Italian towns decorated a wall. A huge black Empire style tiled stove stood out in one space. In the Study of Jaroslav Rožmítl, I saw paintings of Adam and Eve plus renditions of saints George, Wenceslas and Catherine. There was an intriguing room with artifacts from Ethiopia that I had seen on previous tours, but for some reason, we did not visit that space this time. My friend and I were disappointed.
We also went north to Baroque – Classicist Děčín Chateau, which had served as barracks for the Austro-Hungarian army, the Germans and the Soviets for many decades. The last Soviet soldier had departed in 1991. Its history dates back to the end of the 10th century. Děčín became a castle in the second half of the 13th century, though later it was burned down. In the 16th century the Knights from Bunau transformed it into a Renaissance chateau. The historical landmark gets its current appearance from the Thun-Hohenstein period. That family owned it from 1628 to 1932 and had nurtured a friendship with Franz Ferdinand d’Este. In fact, after Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sophia were assassinated in Sarajevo during 1914, his children spent time at Děčín. Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Sissy also stayed at the chateau three weeks after their wedding during the 19th century. A 270-meter steep street gave access to the chateau. Blind arcades adorned seven-meter high walls flanking the street. There was an exquisite Rose Garden, too. A gloriette and statues of mythological gods added to the splendor of this section as did a sala terrena.
The interior was vast and impressive. The library, which at one time was situated in the biggest hall, had held 90,000 books, but due to financial problems, the Thuns had to sell them. Since no one wanted to buy the entire collection, the Thun clan sold the books by the pound. Only 4,500 volumes of the previous collection have been returned. This huge space currently looked like a ballroom with splendid crystal chandeliers.
The exquisite Blue Room included two blue-painted walls with rich decoration, only uncovered during a 2001 restoration. A classical landscape showed people, boats, trees and temples. A large painting of the Thun family tree weighed 150 kilograms. Another room was decorated with floral motifs on blue walls. A wooden bed was made for women who slept half-seated as to not upset their elaborate hair styles. Also, people slept half-seated because they were worried they would die if they lay down on beds. A room showed off the paintings of Děčín by Karl Graff. The Chapel of Saint George was very impressive, too.
In September, my last trip of the year, I spent two weeks in Virginia visiting my parents and four friends. I was constantly worried I would get covid as cases were on the rise. I tended to spend most of the time in my parents’ apartment for this reason. I wanted to go into DC to museums, but I chose to take precautions against covid and stay with my parents. It was the first time I had seen them in two years. That May they had moved from the townhouse where I had lived since the age of three. I missed the red, white and blue rug in my old room, the mahogany piano in the living room and most of all the sunny yellow kitchen where I had talked through so many problems over tea and muffins or scones. I felt as if I had not had the chance to say goodbye to the previous abode, and that rankled me. The thought of a stranger using my childhood home upset me. I liked the apartment, but my heart was back in the townhouse. Still, nothing could compare to the moment I stepped out of the taxi and saw my mother with her hands out, ready for a hug, for the first time in two years. That was one of the best moments of my life.
Yet, during that summer I had experienced one of the worst moments of my life, too. My 11-year-old black cat Šarlota suddenly lost the use of her back legs and had to be rushed to the emergency vet. She had heart problems and stayed overnight in the hospital. The next morning, I was on the balcony, trying to read but unable to concentrate, when the vet called. He said there was no hope. She had to be put to sleep. I was at the vets in an hour or less and spent about 20 minutes talking to Šarlota and petting her, explaining that she was going to meet Bohumil soon in Heaven.
I was crushed. After four horrible years, Šarlota had found me, and she had been so happy living by my side. She had been such a good cat, always thankful and appreciative of her rosy life. It was cruel for her to die after only six years with me, I thought. I spoke to her calmly and thanked her profusely for being my best friend. I will always treasure those 20 minutes. Her death was so sudden that her death still greatly pains me. Every day I almost burst into tears because she is not here.
Four days after she died, I adopted a four-year old black cat I named Olinka Havlová Burnsová after Václav Havel’s wife, the first First Lady of the Czech Republic. Olinka’s history was tinged with sadness as well. About two weeks before I got her from a cat shelter, Olinka’s human, with whom she had a wonderful life, had been murdered at her home by a drug addict. For several days Olinka and her brothers and sisters had been alone in the house with the corpse. When the police came, they all ran away. Olinka was the first to come back to her previous territory, returning the next evening. The cat shelter where I knew the owner had caught her, and she had spent a few weeks there.
The moment I saw a photo of her on the cat shelter’s Facebook page, I wanted to adopt her. When I got her, she was dealing with the death of her first mother, and I was dealing with the death of Šarlota. Now she is happy again, loves playing with all her toys, eating soft food and napping in one of her many beds. She also loves knocking everything off tables, so I have to be careful. Pens, notes and cases for glasses are sprinkled on the carpets of my flat. So far she has destroyed one alarm clock and one lampshade. She was just playing.
I wanted Christmas to be special for Olinka so I filled two stockings with toys. She was very happy during her first Christmas without her first mother, brothers and sisters. I am always astounded at how friendly she is. If a stranger comes in, she will go to him or her and demand petting. The only person she is not sure about is the cleaning lady who moves her toys in order to vacuum.
I so badly want to go back to Italy next year, to travel a little outside the Czech Republic, to wander through museums I have never visited before, to contemplate life in cathedrals, gaze up at the dome and be overcome with awe. I want to walk down picturesque streets for the first time, discovering something new at each corner. I plan on visiting my parents again, too. I hope the situation will be better in the USA whenever I do fly there again.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer and proofreader in Prague.
I’ve been to this Gothic masterpiece many times as it is only about an hour from Prague. Usually I go there by bus and travel back to Prague by train. This time I went for the first time by car with a friend. However, that was not the reason I would always remember this visit. I would remember it because it was my first trip after stay-at-home orders had ended during the coronavirus pandemic. From mid- March until mid-May, I had only been out of my home for long walks through scenic neighborhoods. The first three weeks I hardly went out at all because I was so terrified of getting the illness.
I was nervous as we parked near a restaurant not far from the castle. What if someone coughed on me? One thing I knew: everyone would be wearing a mask. Czechs did not have a problem wearing masks – unlike some Americans. As we approached the castle, I felt a sense of relief and comfort. I had waited for this day since the beginning of April, when castles normally opened for the season in the Czech Republic. Now it was May 26, the first day castles were accessible to the public during 2020.
I was familiar with the history of Křivoklát Castle. The castle dates back to the 13th century, although there was a fort at a different location as far back as the 12th century. Křivoklát Castle was constructed during the legendary era of the Přemyslid Dynasty, the clan that reigned in the Czech lands during the 13th and 14th centuries. The three-level circular tower, inspired by a French style, harkens back to the original structure. This tower is a dominant feature of the castle today. The upper courtyard also hails from this period.
During the reign of Wenceslas II, Křivoklát was a remarkable and extensive early Gothic castle boasting three towers. A fire in the 14th century proved a major setback, though the castle was rebuilt. Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV was imprisoned there as a youngster and later would visit on many occasions despite his nightmarish childhood experience. Charles IV’s son Wenceslas IV had the castle reconstructed at the end of the 14th century and during the 15th century. That’s when Křivoklát became a very impressive structure holding a prominent position in the Czech lands.
The Hussite Wars put an end to the castle’s glory. During this 15th century conflict, Křivoklát was conquered by both the Hussites and the Catholics. However, better days were to come as Czech King Vladislav II had Křivoklát reconstructed in late Gothic style, beginning in the 1470s. The chapel that has been preserved dates from this time. Also, Křivoklát was enhanced with topnotch defense features, such as semi-circular bastions, a battery tower and a triangular foregate with casements. Křivoklát Castle once again became a magnificent structure that was admired not only throughout the Czech lands but also all over Central Europe. Prominent people were imprisoned there. Some notable figures who were incarcerated there included Bishop of the Bohemian Brethren Jan Augusta, who spent 16 years in a cell without light. Alchemist Edward Kelly also did time at Křivoklát after killing a man in a duel.
A fire in 1643 did much damage. It was sold to the Wallenstein clan during 1685. Then, in 1733, the Furstenbergs took control of the castle. After a devastating fire in 1826, the Furstenbergs had it renovated. The Furstenberg library was one of the highlights of the tour. Czech historian František Palacký used the library for his research. In 1929, the family sold the castle to the Czech state.
The main altar, hailing from 1490
Because we went during the coronavirus epidemic, we had to wear masks, and only 15 people were allowed on each tour. However, it was not possible to stand two meters (six feet) apart from other castlegoers, which had me a bit concerned. On the tour, I learned that the original residential and defensive tower is 42 meters high. We saw three models of the castle from different periods. The model from the 13th century showed the tower at the castle’s unprotected side and a simple first courtyard. The second courtyard, though, looked as it did today. We toured the seven prison cells, and I tried to imagine living in one of them for 16 years without light as Jan Augusta did. I could not fathom it.
The main altar in the chapel
Then we came to the chapel, my favorite room in the castle and one of the best preserved Gothic chapels in Europe. The winged main altar showing the crowning of the Virgin Mary dates back to 1490. It consists of four panels portraying the Virgin Mary and Jesus. I noticed one panel pictorially described the birth of Christ. I liked the prominent gold color of Mary’s halo in all four panels. I saw masterfully carved statues of the 12 Apostles on the walls. I loved the armrests on the pews with remarkably carved demonic monster-like creatures. While churchgoers were seated and gazing at the heavenly altar and 12 apostles, the “evil” armrests of the pews reminded them that there was also a Hell, which was readily accessible.
Detail of the main altar
A detail of a pew
We also saw a room dotted with Gothic art – altarpieces, statues and paintings that astounded. A triptych of Archangel Michael hailed from 1500. Illuminated manuscripts also caught my undivided attention. The Big Knights’ Hall measured 28 meters in length and eight meters in width. The statuary was splendid, the pillars elegant, the fresco remnants intriguing. From the oratory, I gazed down at the chapel and that dazzling main altar. The gilded pulpit was an architectural delight.
From the chapel again
The library was another favorite room. I loved being surrounded by books, especially by 53,000 volumes. They were written in German, French, Latin, Italian and Czech. The guide pointed out the biggest book, called Hebrew Didactics and made up of 2,500 pages. Published during the 17th century, it weighed 11 kilos. Always a fan of paintings of castles, I liked the portrayals of the castles before the horrendous fire of 1826. A portrait of a young Franz Joseph I also was intriguing. In the Portrait Gallery of the Furstenbergs, the most important painting was also the smallest – a rendition of Albrecht Furstenberg from 1577. He had worked for Emperor Rudolf II. It was the oldest portrait in the collection.
Another room showed off Baroque and Rococo sleighs once used for hunting, including one that had scenes of Amsterdam depicted on it. The Furstenberg museum included paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, knights’ armor, spears and a colorful Asian vase plus many other artifacts.
Gothic art and illuminated manuscripts amaze.
I had been nervous about this visit because of the coronavirus epidemic, but it went quite smoothly, despite the lack of social distancing on the tour. I was glad to travel again, even if it was only an hour from my home. I realized how much I had missed my weekly day trips. Being cooped up at home, only getting outside for walks, had been at times agonizing as I longed for the old normal that would never exist again. Now, at least after visiting this castle, I felt as if I was following a more normal routine, though I was still terrified of getting the disease.
From Portrait Gallery of the Furstenbergs
We ate lunch in a quiet restaurant in Lány, the town where the president had his summer residence. We were seated at least two meters from the other diners. It was a fantastic feeling to be at a restaurant again after so many microwaved meals at home. It felt liberating, but I knew I still had to be very careful. We got back before 5:30 in the evening, so I was able to watch New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefing live. His briefings helped keep me sane while living through such crazy times.
The library and sleigh collection
While memories of all my other trips to Křivoklát blended together, this one would stand out because of the coronavirus pandemic. I had never imagined I would have to wear a mask while touring a castle. I did not understand why some Americans refused to wear them. After all, it could make all the difference between staying healthy and getting ill or even dying.
During my trip to Křivoklát, the world seemed a little saner, a little less chaotic and less confusing. Admiring Gothic art and Baroque sleighs allowed me to – at least for an hour and a half – forget that the world was messed up, there were so many sudden changes to deal with on a daily basis. Visiting Křivoklát Castle helped me conquer my fears of going outside. And I knew that tomorrow would be another day as I had to take life one step at a time, always moving forward, never looking back.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
Sorry the photos do not always show the objects described in the text.
The chapel of the Musée de Cluny
One of my favorite museums in Paris is the Musée de Cluny, which houses a treasure trove of medieval art. Converted in 1843 to a museum, it is situated on the site of the former baths of Lutetia, a Gallo-Roman site. At one time, it was also home to abbots of Cluny.
The baths of Lutetia are situated on three levels. They were most likely constructed in late 1 AD and served this function for 200 years. In 1862, they were recognized as a historical monument. The townhouse that once was the residence of the abbots is another architectural delight. The huge inner courtyard includes an external spiral staircase. The facades are adorned with many Gothic sculptures. The decoration of an oriel amazes, too. Renaissance and Gothic art features prominently there.
The museum isn’t only a showcase for medieval art. I also found Byzantine and Romanesque artifacts as well as metalwork and enamelware made in Limoges workshops. These included crosses, altarpieces and reliquaries, such as the reliquary of the murdered archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett (1170). The gold votive crowns from Visigoth Spain hailed from the seventh century and served as prime examples of early Western art.
However, what fascinated me the most was the Gothic art. I loved the stained glass windows from Sainte Chapelle, a must for me every time I visited Paris. These windows dated from the middle of the 13th century. Three of the Apostle statues from Sainte-Chapelle were also on display. I loved the detailed drapery of the religious figures.
I also saw the Virgin and Child, dating from 1240 to 1250, carved out of elephant ivory with the detailed folds of drapery on both figures. The Virgin was in the midst of making a gesture with one hand. Her hand looked as though it was in motion. The other hand held onto Jesus so gently, so lovingly. The smile on Jesus’ face was so bright, cheerful and contagious.
The objects from 15th century France tended to be morbid in nature. Indeed, even pictures of decaying corpses were on display. These figures were mostly comprised of reliquaries, statues, small altarpieces and stained glass.
A winged vase was covered in brown and blue decoration on a white background and had a dynamic flair. Coats-of-arms adorned the central part of the vase. It hailed from Valencia, dating from 1465 to 1469.
However, my favorite items in the museum were the six panels of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, in which the unicorn and a lady of noble stature were the protagonists. The six tapestries were created in Flanders around 1500 from wool and silk. They are considered some of the premiere works of art made during the Middle Ages. Five of the six panels evoked the senses while the meaning of the sixth one remains a mystery.
In the sixth tapestry, a unicorn standing on two legs and a lion flanked the lady and her servant, a tent and trees behind them. In front of the tent, I saw French words that could be translated as “love desires only the beauty of the soul.” In the pictorial narrative, the servant was holding an open chest while the smiling lady put a necklace that she was wearing in the other tapestries into the chest. It was notable that the lady is smiling; in the other five tapestries, she was not. The background was made up of flowers and animals. The tapestry could have a spiritual or moral theme or could stand for love and understanding.
Other tapestries on display that astounded me included three scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary (1499) and the Tapestry of Saint Stephen (1500). The Grape Harvest tapestry, hailing from the Netherlands in the 16th century, showed figures with detailed clothing making precise gestures as some picked grapes and other pressed them. I recalled all the amazing tapestries I had seen in the Vatican Museums while I stared, in awe, at the many tapestries in the Cluny Museum.
I also loved the altarpieces and triptychs. The triptych of The Mass of Saint Gregory hailed from Westphalia in the late 15th century. It depicts the Pope seeing the apparition of Christ. The Presentation in the Temple is a triptych made in France during the third quarter of the 15th century. I liked the child’s wooden horse and the Gothic vaulting of the temple. The Life or the Virgin Mary was a gem of painted terracotta with much detail, created by Arnt von Zwolle in 1483. The Altarpiece of the Passion came from the Netherlands and Champagne in the early 16th century. Those are just a few examples.
I left the museum with a much more poignant perspective on medieval art. I can’t wait to go back there someday – hopefully, someday soon. . . .
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The first place our guides took us in Vicenza was the Church of Saint Corona, a three-nave Gothic structure with many treasures inside. The church harkens back to 1261, when it was constructed to house a Holy Thorn that the bishop of Vicenza had received as a present from French King Louis IX.
I loved the interior with its paintings, frescoes, superb choir, ceiling and chancel. The artwork included a masterpiece by Paolo Veronese, “Adoration of the Magi.” The main altar featured Giovanni Bellini’s “The Baptism of Christ” while Bartolomeo Montagna’s “Magdalen and Saints” also made an appearance. I was especially entranced with Giabattista Pittoni’s “Enthroned Madonna and child venerated by Saints Peter and Pius V,” though all the paintings greatly impressed me. I loved art, and seeing these paintings filled me with joy and excitement as if I were at a renowned art museum.
The choir in the apse was another wonder. The carved, inlaid decoration on the wooden choir was so delicate and detailed. The frescoes in the Thiene Chapel hailed from the early 15th century. The chancel was also of Renaissance origin. The painted coffered ceiling with stucco decoration was another jewel. The superbly adorned main altar also appealed to me. The stained glass windows amazed.
Of course, we could not take a good look at the church without paying close attention to the Valmarana Chapel, designed by Andrea Palladio around 1576 and located in the crypt. The Valmarana clan had been buried in the church, so it was no surprise that Antonio Valmarana had chosen to be interred there. The chapel was simply designed as a balanced space with a square space. The two niches in the chapel were simple yet helped give the space a sense of elegance. I liked the symmetry, and I would appreciate this characteristic of Palladio’s architecture in many other works that day and in the following days of our trip.
Every element of the church seemed unique. The paintings each told a powerful story. The Gothic characteristics, the ceiling, the chancel, the choir, the chapel designed by Palladio – everything fused together to make this an architectural gem, just one of the many architectural gems that awaited me in Vicenza.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.