Kladruby Monastery Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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