Plasy Monastery Diary

 

Image

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.

Plasyint2

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.

Plasyint6

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.

Plasyint7

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.

Plasyint8

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.

Plasyint9

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.

Plasyint3

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.

Plasyint29

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.

Plasyint20

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.

Plasyint18

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.

Plasyint15

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

Teplá Monastery Diary

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

Tepla5