Note: No photos were allowed inside
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.
Interior of the church, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006
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.
Aerial view of Osek, from http://www.mapio.net
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.
Vaulted ceiling, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006
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.
Reader’s Lectern in Chapter Hall, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006
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.
Gothic ceiling, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006
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.