Plasy Monastery Diary

 

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NOTE: I added photos of the interior from my third visit.

I have been to Plasy twice, both times changing trains in Plzeň (Pilsen). It is only 45 minutes from the home of pilsner beer. The exterior of the building did not impress me, but when I got inside, I was in for a treat.

First, a bit about the history of the monastery: Founded in the 12th century by Prince Vladislav II, Plasy was burned down by the Hussites, followers of the martyr and preacher Jan Hus, in 1421 during the Hussite Wars, which pitted radical Hussites against the more moderate ones teamed up with the Holy Roman Empire, Royalists, Hungary and The Pope. (The Radical Hussites lost, and Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund put on the Bohemian crown.) In the 18th century architects J.B. Mathey, Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel and Kilian Ignác Dientzenhofer (the younger of the two Dientzenhofers, who hailed from Bavaria but worked in Bohemia during the 18th century) gave it a High Baroque appearance.

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Things took a turn for the worst, though, when Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II closed down the monastery in 1785. Austro-Hungarian Empire chancellor, diplomat and politician Klement Václav Lothar Metternich bought it in the early 1800s, and his family tomb is located in the Church of Saint Václav (Wenceslas) across the street from the monastery, Plasy is also associated with one particular composer: famous Czech Bedřich Smetana spent a week here. He was not the only Czech personality to set foot in Plasy, though: Czech King Václav I (Wenceslas I) also stayed here on several occasions.

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At the beginning of the tour, I walked along the 61-meter long Cloister Hallway, boasting eight ceiling frescoes by Jakub Antonín Pink. One tripartite fresco depicted the Virgin Mary offering food to monks while another showed the Virgin Mary helping monks work in the fields. I noticed the modern art on the walls of the hallway: All the paintings shared the theme of Saint Jan Nepomucký (whom English speakers might better know as John Nepomuk). The works of modern art seemed out of place, though.

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My group continued to the Chapel of Saint Bernard. Surprisingly, there was no furniture in this room. That was because Metternich sold all of it during his tenure there. Stunning, though, was the high wall painting of Saint Bernard, painted by premiere Czech Baroque artist Petr Brandl, whose works I greatly admired. Saint Bernard was leaning on a rock in a forest as angels flocked above. The ceiling fresco depicted Jesus Christ and the 14 disciples.

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The Chapter Hall, measuring 27 meters in height, was designed by famous architect Kilian Ignác Dientzenhofer. This was where new monks used to be accepted, and where monks had cast their votes for new abbots. I glanced up at the ceiling and was impressed with what I saw – a fresco of the Virgin Mary and a gathering of monks. The tour guide told us to bang our fists on one of the wooden benches: The echo would last more than nine seconds, she claimed. She was right.

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One step into the first part of the library and I wondered where the books were: In the second part there were indeed three tall bookcases, though one was almost empty. There was a reason for this, the guide explained: Metternich had changed the library into a smoking room and theatre. The first section, the former smoking room, featured a ceiling fresco. What did it depict? Hard to tell. All the smoke that had lingered in the air had turned the fresco black. In the other area Metternich had installed a seating area and stage, but I saw a Secession bureau, the three tall bookcases and a ceiling fresco depicting an allegory concerning medicine, philosophy and theology.

The former circular Reading Room was intriguing, too. It was home to eight larger-than-life canvases by Pink. These 18th century Baroque paintings all dealt with themes about eating and drinking, taken from the Old Testament.

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When I walked into Winter Dining Room, I noticed that there were no tables or chairs. Instead, I saw an impressive sculptural grouping of Saint Luitgarda standing in the otherwise empty space. Created by legendary Czech sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun, its original could be seen on Prague’s Charles Bridge. On the far right-hand side, I peeked into a small window of the monastery prison, where monks were sent if they came late for prayer, for instance.

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I also viewed two foundation water basins set there because the monastery was so close to the Střela River. These were part of the elaborate water pressure system designed by Czech architect Santini-Aichel, who, in order to give the monastery a firm foundation, constructed the convent on 5,100 oak piles and also created a system of connecting channels as a sort of defense against flooding. He specifically used oak wood because oak hardens in water. It fascinated me that Santini also came up with a unique hydrological system for the monastery.

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I didn’t miss the Baroque toilets, which were composed of circular holes in wooden benches. I looked down through the toilet seat and saw water below. On the way to the Hospital Wing, our group stopped at a self-supporting, winding staircase designed by Santini-Aichel, who I knew for his unique Baroque-Gothic style in a church at Sedlec, near Kutná Hora. I stretched my neck to glimpse the ceiling fresco of Archangel Michael fighting a dragon.

Then we moved to the Hospital Wing, where the pharmacy exhibitions were situated. First, I came across the Baroque pharmacy: I noticed the hand-made, exquisitely painted pictures on the drawers. My eyes were especially drawn to the drawer marked “opium.” It was the only one with a lock on it, the guide said.

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The Classicist pharmacy featured a white theme: wooden shelves were stocked with white jars, and the glass jars had white labels. All the labels on the drawers were white as well. Before reaching the Secession pharmacy, I stopped in the small hospital chapel. The Virgin Mary and 14 saintly helpers stared down at me from the ceiling. The Secession pharmacy flaunted many decorations of flowers and plants on the walls and cabinets. A chandelier impressed me, too. I liked the glass jars with white labels and the red and green fancy trim.

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Then our group left the main building of the monastery, crossed the street, passed the bust of Smetana in the small park and entered the Church of Saint Václav (Wenceslas), where Metternich’s family tomb was located. Originally a Gothic church, it had been reconstructed in Baroque style. Richard Metternich, Klement V. L. Metternich’s son, was the last of the family to be buried in the tomb, during 1938. Several abbots were also buried here.

After the remarkable tour I went to a restaurant nearby and had my usual, chicken with peaches and cheese. Then it was time to return to Prague, so I set off for the small train station. The numerous works of Baroque art had been stunning. Two paintings by master Karel Škréta, a creation by Esther I. Raab and six more canvases by Jan Kryštof Liška also helped to represent the rich Baroque art in the monastery. I better appreciated the differences among the three artistic styles by visiting the pharmacies. The Baroque ceiling and wall frescoes were unforgettable.Image

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Rychnov nad Kněžnou Diary

 

 

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My journey started at 6:30 a.m. on a bus from a Metro station on the other side of Prague, about an hour from my home. We arrived in the east Bohemian town of Hradec Králové, where I was to change buses, on time at 7:45. Then I had to wait. But for how long? The information on the Internet stated that the bus to Rychnov nad Kněžnou would leave at 10 a.m., but the woman at the information desk in Hradec Králové confirmed that the time of my next departure was 9:30 a.m.

It took another hour and a half to get to Rychnov nad Kněžnou, situated in the foothills of the Orlické (Eagle) Mountains northeast of Prague, near the Polish border. While it was a sunny day in Prague, in the mountainous terrain it was much cooler, though still pleasant. The bus station was only minutes away from the chateau, so I didn’t have to worry about getting lost on my way back to the 15:05 bus to Hradec Králové. (Actually, I did get lost. I was about two streets away from the bus station on my attempt to return there. I always seem to get lost!)

I had already visited Rychnov once, about 10 years earlier. While the chateau may not have outdone those nearby in Častolovice and Opočno, it certainly ranked right up there. The chateau had an intriguing past.  The town had been home to a castle or fortress as early as 1258, but it became a ruin, and a church was built over it in the late 16th century. This chateau was built between 1670 and 1690, under the guidance of František Karel Kolowrat. The well-known noble Kolowrat family had purchased the estate during the Thirty Years’ War in 1640, and their descendants even live in the chateau today. (It was returned to the family in 1992.) The residence underwent a Baroque transformation between 1713 and 1727. The architect of what was once the riding hall was the well-renowned Gothic Baroque master Jan Blažej Santini Aichel. In the late 16th century a bell tower had been constructed in the town. It was the third biggest in Bohemia, weighing almost seven tons.

As I approached the chateau, I noticed the column with the Virgin Mary, dating from 1692 to 1694. Soon I was one of three people on the 60-minute tour. The first thing I saw was the coat-of-arms of an eagle on the hallway floor. Above the red and silver eagle was the word “faithfully;” below it, the word “always.” I paid special attention to the crown above the eagle; Emperor Charles IV gave the Kolowrat family the crown on their coat-of-arms after one member of the family had saved the ruler’s life during an assassination attempt in Pisa, Italy.

ImageMy favorite room was the picture gallery. The chateau boasted more than 300 paintings on display and furniture from as far back as the 17th century.  The picture gallery’s collection of about 400 paintings consisted mostly of portraits of the Kolowrat family members, still lifes and hunting scenes by Dutch and Italian masters, and there were also landscapes. Some works took up religious themes as well. The dark-haired, tall man who was giving the tour mentioned that at one time, the collection held 1,218 paintings. This gallery also traced the development of the nobility in portraiture from the 16th to the 19th century. The biggest delight for me was the masterpiece by legendary Czech artist Karel Škréta – his portrait of Ignác Vitanoský of Vlčkovice. However, not only paintings abounded in the chateau; decorated ceramic stoves were situated in each room, dating from the 17th to 20th century.

Other paintings of note included “Esther before Ahasuerus” from the South Netherlandish School of the 16th century. I noticed the luxury of the palace, where the scene took place. In the background, through an open door, I could see greenish-blue mountains and a winding stairway leading up to a mysterious building. What intrigued me the most, though, were the loud, red stockings of Ahasuerus.

In one room a large painting showed the execution of noblemen on Prague’s Old Town Square during 1621, after the Protestant Bohemian States lost to the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and the Catholic League in the Battle of White Mountain during November of 1620. Edison light bulbs were featured in a chandelier decorating another space.

One of my favorite artifacts was a painting of a winter landscape with figures on the ice in a quaint village scene. Several people rode a sleigh, and another was falling down. It reminded me of the wintry creations by my favorite Dutch master, Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

The Škréta portrait was certainly a highlight of the tour. Ignác Vitanovský of Vlčkovice had a gentle yet determined look in his eyes as he gazed at the viewer. I also saw Baroque furniture employing a green and tan leaf motif. In one space a pink and white Venetian chandelier greeted me. The guide pointed out that there was an engraving in the middle of one bureau. It showed Boleslav murdering his brother, the future Czech patron saint Václav (Wenceslas), in Stará Boleslav on September 28, 935.

ImageThen we came to the Knights’ Hall with life-size portraits of members of the Kolowrat family. The chapel was quaint with its ceiling fresco and altar featuring a very pensive Saint Mary of the Snow. Another room was filled with various fans of different colors, some of them made of silk. The guide explained how fans had been used to set up meetings or ask someone out on a date. For example, a gesture with a fan could tell a man if the woman was single or married. A Buddha also decorated that room. The head and hands could move, and it stuck out its tongue at the viewer.

In the Dining Room I saw Viennese, Empire style, Meissen and other styles of porcelain. What interested me the most were the paintings of dead animals on the walls. It seemed to be inappropriate décor for a place where people ate. Looking at those paintings during dinner would certainly ruin my appetite.

The tour was over too soon. Then I went to lunch on the main square, where I had my favorite chicken with peaches and cheese. I also checked out the Holy Trinity Church, erected on the site of what was once a castle or fortress. The church was closed, but I did see an intriguing fresco on one wall.

There was even more to see at the chateau. The Hladík Gallery featured statues of former Prague professor of the arts Karel Hladík, who lived from 1912 to 1967 and hailed from the Rychnov area. I was impressed. His busts, torsos, decorated totem pole-like sculptures and figures in agony spoke to me as they relayed strong emotions. I felt as if I really knew the people whose busts I saw, as if I almost could understand them. Another intriguing work was his portrait of a gaunt Franz Kafka.

The upstairs portion of the Orlická Gallery awaited me. There I saw the landscapes by Jan Trampota. These were landscapes in bright pastels, mostly of scenes in the Orlické Mountains. One of Trampota’s works showed the beautiful countryside with gentle hills and lush trees. The terrain was sprinkled with a few cottages. This watercolor “At the End of Summer” was executed during 1928-29 in soothing pastels and greens and browns, and was my favorite of his paintings on display. In another room landscape paintings by one of my favorite Czech artists, Antonín Hudeček, were hung. I wanted to take Hudeček’s field of pink flowers home.

There were many rooms in the gallery, all boasting intriguing paintings, plus a temporary photography exhibition. By the time I got through the gallery, it was time to hurry back to the station to get the bus back to Hradec Králové. I did get lost during what should have been a five-minute trek, but I still made it in time.

On the bus I noticed a sign stating that passengers must fasten their seat belts. But I didn’t have a seat belt. In fact, the other seats near me didn’t, either. Both buses coming to Rychnov nad Kněžnou had been equipped with seat belts. Luckily, there was no accident and upon arriving to Hradec Králové, I immediately got on a 16:30 bus to Prague. Image

Teplá Monastery Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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